Precarious lives: asylum seekers and refugees' experiences of forced labour

Dr Louise Waite

This project aimed to gain an in-depth understanding of the experiences of forced labour among asylum seekers and refugees based in England. The project used a qualitative methodology that combined a literature/policy review, socio-legal mapping, in-depth interviews with asylum seekers and refugees and key informant interviews.

Ethical issues

The ethical integrity of this project was paramount as it involved individuals who can be considered ‘doubly vulnerable’. Over time the participants had moved between several categories: trafficked migrants, undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people with experiences of forced labour. This affected the possibilities of accessing potential participants, the views and attitudes of gatekeepers, the negotiation of meaningful informed consent and ethical issues of assuring anonymity that extend into analysis, write up and dissemination.

Many ethical issues were addressed prior to the project commencing, but the central ethical approach was that principles of ‘doing no harm’, anonymity and informed consent were explored and discussed iteratively within the team in response to individual circumstances as they arose through the life of the grant.

The offer of anonymity was explained clearly stressing the independence of the research from authority. Written informed consent was provided at the end of the interviews to reiterate ‘formal’ informed consent once the interviewee knew and could reflect on what they shared. This allowed for requests for any sensitive material to be redacted; and to form a debriefing to ‘closedown’ the emotional space of the interview, and help transition to the normality of mundane everyday life after the researcher has left.

Interviewees were included in interpreter selection to help control who their ‘exploitation’ experience was shared with. Interviews were conducted in places convenient to the participants, avoiding official-looking spaces that might replicate experience typified by power imbalance (eg the Home Office interviews). Monitoring data (eg gender and work biographies) were collected at the end of interviews, to avoid going over such information more than once. We developed a ‘serious harm’ protocol, agreed with the research advisory group, on how to respond in the event of disclosure of immediate and serious harm, and when necessary we directed participants to appropriate support services.

Illegality concerns extend to the need to minimise harm to participants through the safeguarding of data within and after the fieldwork. No official identifying data (eg Home Office numbers) was recorded, participants chose their own pseudonyms, which were then used to record all interview data and were not connected to password protected interviewee contact details. The pseudonyms selected by the participants were not disclosive. 


Be aware of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of individuals who have experienced multiple traumas. In this research, while the main focus was to explore experiences of severe labour exploitation, this was not necessarily the experience that individuals found most difficult to confront; it was commonly the insecurities and feelings of disempowerment surrounding immigration processes that were more upsetting.

Multiple points and varied approaches to access are vital for accessing individuals who are ‘doubly vulnerable’ – ie who are part of a ‘hidden’ population, and have experiences that are actively kept ‘invisible’, and which may have been traumatising or stigmatising. Traditional gatekeepers, such as voluntary sector services, may not be aware of experiences of their service users. Equally, snowball sampling techniques may be of limited use in trying to access people with an experience they may not wish to share within their social/ friendship networks. This is particularly relevant for understanding how illegality affects and shapes the research process.

Mobile telephones provide a tool for participants to contact researchers and to make meaningful the promise of allowing participants to withdraw at any time or decline participation up to the last minute.

Offering as much flexibility as possible in organising the location and conduct of interviews are vital for working with people who have precarious lives. For research participants who have multiple reasons to mistrust others, it is important that they control where and when meetings take place so that they feel comfortable and empowered to participate in the research process on their own terms.