“Do You Want to Help or Go to War?”: Ethical Challenges of Critical Research in Immigration Detention in Canada

Kronick, R.; Cleveland, J.; Rousseau, C. (2018)

Journal of Social and Political Psychology

6(2) | 644-660

In a time of mass displacement, countries across the globe are seeking to protect borders through coercive methods of deterrence such as immigration detention. In Canada, migrants—including children—may be detained in penal facilities having neither been charged nor convicted of crimes. In this paper we examine how we dealt with the series of ethical dilemmas that emerged while doing research in immigration detention centres in Canada. Using a critical ethnographic approach, we examine the process of our research in the field, seeking to understand what our emotional responses and those of the staff could tell us about detention itself, but also about what is at stake when researchers are faced with the suffering of participants in these spaces of confinement. The findings suggest that field work in immigration detention centres is an emotionally demanding process and that there were several pivotal moments in which our sense of moral and clinical obligations toward distressed detainees, especially children, were in conflict with our role as researchers. We also grapple with how the disciplinary gaze of the detention centre affects researchers entering the space. Given these tensions, we argue, spaces of critical reflection that can consider and contain the strongly evoked emotions are crucial, both for researchers, and perhaps more challengingly, for detention centre employees and gatekeepers as well.