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Doing Fieldwork on State Organizations in Democratic Settings: Ethical Issues of Research in Refugee Decision Making

Journal Paper
Sule Tomkinson
Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol 16, No.1

By drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork and my field diaries in refugee decision-making in Canada, I make three arguments in this article. First, the binary of research in closed vs. open settings may have contributed to overlooking of ethical challenges of research in state organizations in democratic settings. We have to overcome this binary by opening a dialogue among ethnographers. Second, despite well-developed and diverse nature of scholarship on Research Ethics’ Board’s (REB) formal practices and their negative impact on ethnographers’ research proposals, the scarcity of scholarship on “ethics in practice” or “everyday ethics” show that we seem to forget that ethnographers, after receiving research ethics approval, still have to do considerable interpretation for what being ethical means. Finally, paying attention to “ethically important moments” during research practice may help us bridge the gap between formal ethics principles and ethics in practice. Using field diaries in these reflections instead of more sanitized subsequent accounts illustrate the immediacy and importance of ethical concerns during research practice.

Keywords:

ethics in practice; micro ethics; research on state organizations; ethnography; informed consent; refugee research

Soupçon sur l’asile au Canada

Journal Paper
Sule Tomkinson
Plein Droit, Naufrage de l'asile, 2(no 105), 26-29

Le gouvernement conservateur du Canada a entrepris à partir de 2012 des changements profonds quant aux conditions d’accueil des demandeurs d’asile notamment concernant les services de santé et les procédures de première instance et d’appel. Ce durcissement politique a toutefois suscité les réactions d’autres acteurs institutionnels tels la Cour fédérale, des associations de défense du droit d’asile, mais aussi des fonctionnaires en charge de l’octroi du statut de réfugié.

Studying refugee decision-making: difficulties in accessing the research site and strategies for resolving them

Journal Paper
Sule Tomkinson
Refugee Review, Vol. 2, No.1, 151-160

This opinion piece discusses that qualitative social science literature is mute about the methodological difficulties of research in state organizations in democratic countries. State organizations operate in private and as a result of confidentiality concerns; access is not granted to anybody. By giving examples and sharing strategies from eighteen months of ethnographic field research in refugee decision-making in Canada, I illustrate how identification of powerful gatekeepers and developing close relationships are vital for accessing the research site.

The impact of procedural capital and quality counsel in the Canadian refugee determination process

Journal Paper
Sule Tomkinson
International Journal of Migration and Border Studies, Vol.1, No.3, pp.276 - 290

In an era where international immigration is increasingly difficult and selective, refugee status constitutes a valuable public good that enables access and membership to the host country. Despite the independent, impartial and discretionary character of refugee decision-making at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), where an adjudicator determines refugee status following a hearing, critics blame the disparities in refugee status grant rates on the adjudicators. In particular, the disparities are attributed to unfair and inconsistent refugee determination. By examining the pre-hearing period and the refugee hearing, this article questions the attribution of responsibility in inconsistent decision-making solely to the adjudicators. Though refugee status grant rates do in fact vary, when the analytical gaze is turned to the characteristics of the refugee claimants and their counsels we notice that not all claimants have similar resources and abilities, receive equivalent legal consultation or submit case folders prepared in comparable quality.

Keywords:

refugee decision-making; refugee determination, procedural capital; quality of counsel; administrative tribunals; refugee hearing; credibility assessment

Who are you afraid of and why? Inside the Black Box of Refugee Tribunals

Journal Paper
Sule Tomkinson
Canadian Public Administration, Volume 61, Issue 2, fortcoming in June 2018

Refugee hearings perform an important function in migration management. They filter unwanted immigrants while offering possibilities for the protection of human rights for others. Building on insights from frontline decision-making, migration studies, and law and society scholarship, this paper examines how Canada’s refugee adjudicators assess the facts of a refugee claim. The data comes from ethnographic research that combines observation of hearings, interviews with implicated actors and archival research. Going beyond adjudicators’ individual-level attitudes towards refugee claimants, the analysis finds that hearing room practices are shaped by adjudicators’ divergent approaches to fact-finding, their interdependent relationships with lawyers, and their training.