The first stage in any empirical investigation is precisely determining one's subject of study. There is, however, no single 'right' definition of who qualifies to be called an urban forced migrant (see Definitions and legal issues). Some researchers rely on narrow legal definitions: those people living in urban environments who have been legally classified as refugees, for example. Others include asylum seekers along with refugees. While these are appropriate for particular kinds of studies, it risks excluding many who qualify under a more 'common sense' definition of forced migrant. It also excludes those who have not applied or have ensured their right to residence through extra-legal channels. Recognizing this, at least one study (Jacobsen and Landau 2003) has adopted a more expansive definition of their study population: all those coming from 'refugee-producing countries' who are living, however temporarily, in a given urban environment. While this means including people better designated as 'voluntary' than as forced migrants, it implicitly recognizes that the division between these groups may not be as firm as a strict legal designation suggests.
Definitional issues are further complicated by questions of what 'forced' means, what qualifies as an urban area, and for how long after arrival a person should be categorized as a migrant rather than a permanent resident (Spear 1983). Although much of the discussion above deals with people who have fled international borders or have been displaced by war and famine within their own countries, one might quite legitimately include those displaced by evictions, slum clearances, or urban renewal projects as urban forced migrants (see Evictions, forced removals, and slum clearance). Again, the definition used depends on the author's objectives: the debates with which the study is intended to engage, and the kind of claims it is intended to make.
Having determined who qualifies as an 'urban forced migrant', one must then decide where the boundaries of the city are. Official census designations may be useful in this regard as they help to demarcate an area of study and may facilitate the collection of comparative (geographic or longitudinal) data. Such reliance is not, however, without risk. Many peri-urban or squatter settlements are excluded from official statistics and do not appear on city maps or as part of the city proper. The role of these areas in urban economic, political, and social processes should, however, qualify them for inclusion. As they are often the areas in which new migrants (domestic and international, voluntary and forced) first settle, excluding them will only weaken the proposed research.
In concluding, it is worth noting that there are valid reasons for maintaining heterogeneous definitions with the growing literature on urban refugees. Before engaging with - to support, test, or challenge - others' work, it is important to keep in mind the definitions that have used and the relative benefits and costs of the definition and concepts employed. In order to ensure clear communication and allow others to evaluate your claims, it is important that one be explicit about how and why you have selected a particular approach.
Field work challenges
Apart from the conceptual challenges discussed above, urban environments provide more than their fair share of technical and logistical hurdles. While only exposure and preliminary study will help define the obstacles to be overcome, there are compelling ethical and methodological reasons to consider the following common challenges confronting those working in urban settings.
Reaching a conceptual definition of a forced migrant is the first step in developing a concrete sampling strategy. Implementing such a strategy is, however, remarkably difficult with urban refugees, the majority of whom are self-settled among host populations. In camp settings there are often more or less accurate estimates of the size of one's intended study populations and their spatial distribution. Even with self-settled migrants in rural settings, there are often local authorities who can help to identify newcomers and estimate their numbers and location. Except where urban refugees are resettled and monitored by officials or aid workers, it may be very difficult to garner such information within cities. While aid workers or representatives of refugee communities may provide some guidance as to the location and numbers of people in a given area, these may be considered only as very general, and possibly highly biased, estimates. In such environments, developing a sampling frame that allows one to make claims of representativeness is difficult, but by no means impossible. When this is a goal, one must be prepared to adopt an innovative strategy demanding creativity, a willingness to compromise, and a readiness to place limits on one's claims (see Kibreab in AUC 2003; Jacobsen and Landau 2003; Bloch 1999).
Urban populations - of both hosts and refugees - are often much more heterogeneous than those in rural settings. Physically locating the 'type' of people one is interested in researching may, therefore, require considerably more effort than in other environments. That people may consciously (and convincingly) adopt other national or ethnic identities as a part of their livelihood or asylum strategies only further complicates such efforts.
Although all researchers face challenges in defining a household's size and composition, these may be particularly acute in urban areas. Not only are multiple families or groupings likely to be sharing a residential address, but members of one family may not be able to effectively identify or enumerate others within the residence. Given that most urban refugees are self-settled, membership in any of those units is, moreover, likely to be considerably more fluid than in rural areas, with people moving in and out of the household from across borders or from within the same urban area. The uncertainty and insecurity associated with low-income housing in many urban areas (see Evictions, forced removals, and slum clearance) further increases the difficulty of tracking individuals over time. That many people live in tightly confined spaces may also make it difficult to speak with particular individuals without interference. This is especially likely when trying to interview women. Even when others remain quiet during an interview, the presence of kin or neighbours may limit what respondents are willing to reveal.
Exploring or comparing different ethnic or national groups among a forced migrant population, or including host populations for comparative purposes, raises additional methodological concerns. To begin with, one must broker access to multiple communities. There is also likely to be the need for multiple translations of questionnaires, a task that must be done carefully to ensure that substantively equivalent questions are asked to all people. One must also address varying norms and recognize the political pressures affecting potential respondents' willingness to speak with outsiders. Some communities are likely to be forthcoming with information while others - either as a result of cultural norms or fear of discovery - may remain reticent. There is, therefore, a need to consider the effects of the environment on the quality of the responses collected.
Forced migrants typically find accommodation in those parts of cities that are deemed least desirable due to poor infrastructure and services or physical insecurity. This creates additional technical and physical challenges for researchers, including:
1. Transportation for researchers and respondents may be difficult, and communicating with migrants in advance of a meeting or to follow up may be next to impossible (although access to cellular phones can be a positive aspect of urban research).
2. The residences themselves can present access problems as the researchers try to navigate security systems, doormen, or dangerous corridors.
3. Broader security concerns - for researchers, research assistants, and respondents - must not be overlooked. At the very least, heightened suspicion will make it more difficult to convince respondents to participate and may bias what they reveal. Moreover, certain areas may be effectively inaccessible at night, precisely the time when one would wish to interview those working during the day. A visit by an obvious outsider to a building may also alert other residents (or immigration officials) to the presence of a refugee or undocumented immigrant, putting the respondent in danger of harassment or deportation.
- American University in Cairo (AUC), 'Research on Refugees in Urban Settings: Methods and Ethics', Workshop Report, April 2003 http://www.aucegypt.edu/academic/fmrs/Outreach/Workshops/Urbanworkshop.pdf
- Crisp, J., 'Who Has Counted the Refugees? UNHCR and the Politics of Numbers', New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper No. 12, June 1999 http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendoc.pdf?tbl=RESEARCH&id=3ae6a0c22&page=research
- Crush, J. and Williams, V., 'Making up the Numbers: Measuring "Illegal Immigration" to South Africa', Migration Policy Brief No. 3. Cape Town: Southern African Migration Project, 2001 http://www.queensu.ca/samp/forms/form1.html
- Jacobsen, K. and Landau, L., The Dual Imperative in Refugee Research: Some Methodological and Ethical Considerations in Social Science Research on Forced Migration, 2003 http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/migration/pubs/rrwp/19_jacobsen.html
- Lammers, E., Young, Urban Refugees in Kampala, Uganda: Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Fieldwork and Issues of Representation, 2003 http://migration.wits.ac.za/lammerswp.pdf
- Macchiavello, M., Urban Forced Migrants in Kampala: Methodologies and Ethical and Psychological Issues, 2003 http://migration.wits.ac.za/macchiavellowp.pdf