Research Ethics in Migration Studies – Practical Tips for Researchers

A well thought-through ethical framework is essential for migration research. Research projects such as PERCEPTIONS raise key ethical concerns of migration research, including (but not limited to) research with vulnerable populations, appropriate informed consent procedures, and handling of personal identifiable data. This article provides an overview of key areas and concerns, as well as practical tips for researchers.

Any European research project on the topic of migration needs to assess ethics topics of concern and define an ethics framework, considering the following:

  • Compliance with all relevant European and national laws;
  • Adherence to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity [1], except in cases in which it might violate or contravene relevant European or national laws or individual institutional guidelines;
  • Careful consideration of four basic ethical principles during all stages of the research, as well as with regard to its outputs: (i) Respect for autonomy (the obligation to respect decision-making capacities of autonomous persons); (ii) Non-maleficence (the obligation to avoid causing harm); (iii) Beneficence (the obligation to provide benefits and to balance benefits against risks); and (iv) Justice (the obligation of fairness in the distribution of benefits and risks) [2].

Researchers carefully need to assess ethics before, during, and after conducting any data collection. This may include (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Assessment of the legal basis (in particular, the EU GDPR, as well as national legislation); of relevant ethics codes and declarations such as the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, or the Oviedo Convention; and of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and EU Directive 2001/20/EC, as well as the OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data;
  • Conduct of an ethics self-assessment, as well as an assessment of the requirement (and possibility) of ethics clearance through an institutional or national-level ethics boards;
  • Definition of a data protection policy, including rules for anonymisation and pseudonymisation, as well as rules for handling data in non-EU research sites;
  • Definition of informed consent, recruiting and interviewing procedures;
  • Definition of an incidental findings policy;
  • Definition of benefit-sharing measures and prevention of misuse of research findings.

In the following, some information is provided on two topics that are particularly relevant for migration research, namely research with vulnerable groups and incidental findings.

Research with vulnerable groups

Particular focus needs to be put on research with vulnerable subjects. The European Commission [2] defines two criteria for vulnerability: 

  • the inability to protect one’s own interests; 
  • being under threat of harm. 

Migrants are a particularly vulnerable group, especially those who were forced to migrate might have suffered serious physical, psychological and/or emotional trauma. They also might presently be in situations (e.g., in camps) where they are subject to ethnic and/or sexual violence, living in cramped or squalid conditions, or a multitude of other issues [3]. Despite the potential of research activities to infringe on migrants’ privacy and expose them to risks, including in some cases the risk of prosecution by authorities or persecution by human traffickers or other antagonistic actors, it is crucial to gain insight in the migrant perspective, conducting research with rather than on them.

Due to diffuse and difficult-to-predict risks arising from the political sensitivity of the issue at hand, also first-line practitioners and law enforcement agents may be susceptible to distress, as well as to political pressure and violence. While this is less likely in Europe, in some non-European countries, policymakers and practitioners may be vulnerable to political violence.

Incidental findings

Incidental findings are (i) findings outside the scope of the original research questions, as well as (ii) findings that may require the researcher to take some form of action. They can be anticipated if they are associated with a specific procedure, or unanticipated in the current state of scientific knowledge. For both cases, researchers should consider in advance what they might do if a particular kind of unexpected finding arises, for example, one that could be actionable or lifesaving [4].

Examples of incidental findings that may require follow-up action are “indications of criminal activity, human trafficking, abuse, domestic violence or bullying.” In the case of such findings, one key decision facing the researcher is “whether to preserve confidentiality or to disclose the information to relevant authorities or services.” Other, less controversial decisions are whether to try to gain more information about the finding, whether to refer the research participant to support services, etc.

Researchers need to define a clear policy on how to handle such findings, protecting both themselves as well as their study subjects.


Note: This article is based on PERCEPTIONS D1.3 Ethical framework.

Author: Diotima Bertel


[1] ALLEA (2017). The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. Revised Edition. 

[2] European Commission Directorate-General for Research (2010). European Textbook on Ethics in Research. Brussels.

[3] Mackenzie, C., McDowell, C., & Pittaway, E. (2007). Beyond ‘do no harm’: The challenge of constructing ethical relationships in refugee research. Journal of refugee studies, 20(2), 299-319.

[4] European Commission Directorate-General for Research (2018b). Guidance — Ethics in social science and humanities. Brussels. 



The Declaration of Helsinki: 

Oviedo Convention: 

European Charter of Fundamental Rights: 

EU Directive 2001/20/EC: 

OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data: 

Nuremberg Code: 


ethics, migration, incidental findings, vulnerable groups

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