Multi-Focal Power in Refugee Research

by Lisa Richlen

Sudanese asylum seekers first began coming to Israel in significant numbers in 2005, the numbers increasing until Israel sealed its border in early 2013. The vast majority of asylum seekers are men, arriving at a relatively young age. Throughout this extended period, the Israeli government has instituted a series of repressive policies, which have created a very unwelcoming atmosphere for African asylum seekers. This has included detention and imprisonment and a practice of non-assessment of refugee claims (to date, only one Sudanese national has been formally recognized as a refugee). In addition, there is verbal incitement and physical violence against the community and a hostile attitude from policymakers and the public alike. A series of shifting policies have generated significant instability and uncertainty for the asylum seekers regarding their status and situation in Israel.

Israeli policy and practice has been quite effective at reducing the number of asylum seekers in the country – by half between 2012 and 2020

Overall, these policies have sent a very clear message that they are not welcome and that they have no future in Israel. Israeli policy and practice has been quite effective at reducing the number of asylum seekers in the country – by half between 2012 and 2020 – as individuals have found various avenues, some safer than others, to leave.

Street scene in South Tel Aviv. The area is the hub of the migrant and asylum seeker community in Israel. Photo by author.

Based on my experiences working with, and conducting research about, Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, this post reflects on how longstanding relations with a community of asylum seekers can influence the power dynamics between researcher and informants. While such relations can be leveraged by researchers to their benefit, they may also experience shortcomings and disadvantages in the process.  

Power and Knowledge in Refugee Research

13 April 2019 event in South Tel Aviv celebrating the fall of the Bashir regime in Sudan (women took an active role in the protests in Sudan). Photo by author.

A significant body of refugee research literature focuses on the complex power dynamics between the researcher and researched. Forced migrants tend to experience acute disadvantages and vulnerability and have limited means at their disposal for bettering their situation. This can place the researcher in a position of advantage and, accordingly, raises methodological questions around how to address power differences, autonomy and agency, dependency and more in research design. Power differentials can be somewhat neutralized by participatory strategies. Narrowly conceived, this can consist of intentional strategies applied by researchers but can also be more broadly conceived of as bringing refugee stories and narratives to light. In any case, power underlies the discussion: who has it, how is it used and how is it conceptualized. 

Power is often conceived of in binary (powerful/powerless) and unidirectional (top-down) terms. These binaries position the researcher as being powerful and sitting at the top of the pyramid. Giorgia Donà, on the other hand, sees power as being multi-focal within complex and dynamic net-like systems. Power as well as, I would add, knowledge circulate in different directions through numerous actors. Even actors perceived to be ‘powerless’ hold different forms of power and influence that they wield in different ways. For example, the researcher may be dependent on brokers or gatekeepers who, skilled at turning their liabilities into assets to promote their own survival and positioning, have their own areas of influence and know how to use them to their benefit.

Therefore, refugee communities can be seen as having more or less power in different areas and contexts. Furthermore, it is possible that the more static representations of power common in the research literature tend to reflect western thinking but are not accurate reflections of the more flexible and dynamic ways in which refugees themselves strategically wield power at their disposal to their own benefit.  

Researcher Positionality

My work with the Darfurian community in Israel began formally in 2007 when I was on staff at one of the human rights organizations assisting the community. At the time, I assisted the first refugee organization established by the Darfurian community and I got to know many of the initial arrivals. This involvement continued through 2012 where I worked briefly as paid staff for that same organization and also ran courses on topics such as realizing one’s rights and organizational development. As a known figure, I was approached directly by a number of other refugee community organizations and/or in contact with the leadership of these various organizations during these early years. 

June 25th, 2019 protest outside the European Union Delegation office in Ramat Gan, Israel, protesting lack of more concerted EU action regarding human rights violations in Sudan connected to regime change in Sudan.

Photo by author.

This long-standing involvement with the community has consisted of a wide variety of experiences: some gratifying and others difficult and frustrating. Embarking on research about the internal dynamics of the Sudanese community and their strategies of organizing for my PhD, I was prepared to encounter situations in which I would face a lack of trust, poor cooperation from individuals and organizations and, most significantly, dynamics that I wouldn’t understand. I was well aware of my own limitations linguistically and culturally and in terms of my knowledge about the community. I also entered the research acutely aware of the fact that the research would not generate meaningful change in the lives of asylum seekers in Israel in the areas that matter: legal status and rights, working towards a meaningful future and more. In short, I came into this research with a recognition of the limits of my own power and, indeed, my own shortcomings vis à-vis the research population.

Neve Shaanan Street; the main commercial area in South Tel Aviv. Photo by author.

These limitations, however, this did not render me powerless. The research, first and foremost, benefits me. I was also able to leverage knowledge of the community and my relationships with individuals to my own advantage. Knowing a large number of people and their positions in communal life helped me to more easily and effectively conduct research. There were probably other factors that influenced willingness to work with me: a basic cultural reluctance to say no, the fact that I have three citizenships, my skin colour, my extensive knowledge base and my connections to people who can potentially offer assistance. Finally, and no less importantly, is the fact that I’m a woman who isn’t put off by – and even interested in – speaking to a young African male in a context where there are no Sudanese women and almost no possibilities for partnership. 

While these factors may have initially gotten me in the door, my knowledge of the community increased the trust I garnered and, as a result, the quality of information I was able to glean once inside. Prior to setting up meetings, I was, for the most part, able to identify people who were likely to be knowledgeable about specific topics and to understand their credibility and their positionality within the community. Relatively quickly in the interaction, I would try to demonstrate my prior knowledge of the community, emphasizing my long-term commitment to the community and strong connections with various individuals. I found that once this mutual understanding was in place, the information I received was much more direct and probably a more accurate reflection of how people actually felt and what they actually believed. In my view, while we all have a tendency to want to keep things private – in part due to a lack of trust – my interlocutors were more open with me when they understood that they were telling me things that I had already heard, experienced or understood. 

Power Dynamics in Researcher/Informant Relationships

In the research in question, I was able to leverage my own knowledge of the community, as well as my position as a relative outsider to my benefit. This sat alongside my own shortcomings vis-à-vis the community: linguistic and cultural disadvantages, internal dynamics that were foreign to me, my limited ability to provide meaningful assistance and my prior reputation – for good or for bad – due to previous involvement in communal organizations.

Researcher/informant power dynamics were not uni-directional nor static, but rather context-specific, relative, situational, dynamic and fluid and often subject to change

Indeed, in this case, in line with Donà, researcher/informant power dynamics were not uni-directional nor static, but rather context-specific, relative, situational, dynamic and fluid and often subject to change. The key is to be cognizant of these dynamics and sensitive to their influence throughout the research process. Being aware of this complexity and understanding how to negotiate within it can hopefully enhance not only research findings but also researcher/informant relationships. 

Author Bio

Lisa Richlen is currently a PhD student in African Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev researching community organizing amongst the Darfurian Sudanese community in Israel.  Since 2004, Richlen has worked in social change and human rights in Israel including significant experience working on the topic of migration and specifically with Israel’s Darfurian community. The author would like to thank Jack ‘Tegetege’ for his helpful feedback when writing this blog post.

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