Refugee decision-making in Canada: difficulties in accessing the research site and strategies for resolution by Sule Tomkinson

Sue Tomlinson - Opinion Piece - appellantKit(review)-e - pic courtesy immigration and refugee board of canada
SULE TOMKINSON recently completed her doctoral studies in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal. Her dissertation, entitled “Contextualizing discretion: Micro-dynamics of Canada’s refugee determination-system,” received an outstanding dissertation award and she was nominated to the Dean’s Honor List. Sule’s research interests lie within the fields of law and society, including migration governance, international human rights law and decision-making.


Qualitative social science literature is often silent on the methodological difficulties of research undertaken within certain state organizations in democratic countries. State organizations often operate privately as a result of confidentiality concerns and access is not easily granted to researchers. In this opinion piece I illustrate how being flexible during the fieldwork process may open different gates for entry. In this case, a flexible research methodology required reaching out to various actors involved in the determination process for access opportunities. In particular, I discuss my research on refugee decision-making at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). My research focused on, in addition to IRB decision-makers, both refugee claimants and those that work on their behalf, including lawyers and advocacy organizations. The strategies I discuss below are the result of eighteen months of ethnographic field research on this topic in Canada.
On November 15, 2013, I wrote in my field diary:

It has been a few months since I made several phone calls and wrote e-mails to the Communication Department of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), indicating my intention to interview officials occupying managerial positions.[1] The senior communication officer who called me back had asked me to send him the questions I was intending to ask at a probable interview. I did and I still have not heard from them. I had no idea that trying to interview people employed at an administrative tribunal would be this challenging. Observing refugee hearings was [challenging], since they are closed to the public. But why interviews? Why do the IRB managers keep refusing to talk to me? What is funny is how researchers talk about the difficulty of research in authoritarian regimes. Here I am in Canada, one of the greatest democracies of the world, yet the IRB managers will not talk to me.

I remember one of the first refugee hearings I observed almost a year ago. I had shown my research ethics certificate[2] to the Board member who was presiding at the refugee hearing. After the refugee claimant I was accompanying indicated that he was OK with my presence, I sat at the back of the room and started observing and listening attentively. At the break, I put on my most pleasant face and went to say “Hi” to the Board member: “I am a PhD student in political science and I am interested in refugee decision-making”. He responded, “Cool, you should drop off a copy of your thesis when you are done”. I did not want to let go that fast. I was trying to explore refugee decision-making, and he was one of the people making these decisions. Observing refugee hearings was one thing, but I needed to interview the decision-makers to understand their perception of both themselves and of refugee claimants. Otherwise, could I call what I was doing ethnography? That is why I was straightforward [in response]; I said, “Actually, I am hoping to interview a few Board members”. In response, he laughed and said, “Good luck with that”.

I remember feeling surprised; not understanding what the big deal was. Researchers had interviewed refugee decision-makers in other contexts such as Finland and the United States[3]. Why was it so hard to talk to them in Canada? I know that the tribunal’s Code of Conduct does not allow the decision-makers to speak to researchers, media or [the] public, but why? Who is protected by this rule? The Board member, the refugee claimant or the IRB as an organization? I am convinced that I have a responsibility to my research participants—especially refugee claimants—to offer [a] first [hand] account of what they go through to receive Canada’s protection, but I cannot get into the organization…

This excerpt describes my frustrations with the difficulty of accessing the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), the independent, impartial administrative tribunal that makes refugee status determinations. The issues I addressed are fragmented; I started by complaining about IRB managers’ hesitancy to respond to my interview demands and ended up criticizing the official policy that prevents access to Board members, Canada’s official refugee decision-makers.[4]

How did you react while reading it? Did you relate to some of my research considerations, or the weak position that I was occupying in the field research? Or did you feel that I sounded like a researcher who was telling a woe-is-me story?

Despite the strength of the qualitative social research literature that discusses methodological difficulties in authoritarian countries,[5] very little has been written about the access difficulties researchers studying organizations that implement migration policy face in democratic countries.[6]

The aim of this opinion piece is to demonstrate both the ways in which access to a Canadian administrative tribunal can be challenging and frustrating, and how being flexible during the fieldwork process may open different gates for entry. In this case, a flexible research methodology required reaching out to various actors involved in the determination process for access opportunities. By giving examples and sharing strategies from my eighteen months of ethnographic field research, I illustrate how the identification of powerful gatekeepers and developing close professional relationships with them was vital for accessing a research site.

Researching Board members, seeking access through gatekeepers

Methodology and barriers to access

A well-established perspective on the position of the field researcher in relation to research participants permeates qualitative social science research: field research often takes place in sites where the researcher is more powerful compared to research participants. The researcher is seen as the one who is in control while the participants are the ones who are prone to exploitation. This perspective certainly dominates research that includes refugees or refugee claimants.[7] However, this position “obscures the varied ways the researcher’s power and authority can shift and change in differing relationships and situations in the field”[8] . Direct observations in research sites that bring powerful elites and less powerful actors together constitute situations in which gaining access is not a once and for all matter, but an ongoing process. It is important for the researcher to be strategic while also protecting the integrity of the research and research participants. I will explain how I occupied a rather weak position at the beginning of the research, trying to secure access to the refugee hearing through several gatekeepers.

My doctoral research focused on refugee determination in Canada and aimed to understand why there are differing rates of granting refugee status among IRB Board members.[9] [10] When reporting this highly mediatised issue, journalists have claimed that refugee determination is characterized by inconsistent decision-making, alleging that the Board member who hears the claim makes a greater difference than the merits of the case.[11] Despite frequent attention paid to this issue in the media, there was no empirical study that explored why variation in practice occurred. Previous research conducted through interviews with former Board members who were no longer employed at the IRB indicated that some were more suspicious than others in regard to the accuracy and the truth of refugee claimants’ narratives[12]. In my research, I wanted to adopt a theoretical framework based on street-level observation, and as such I was interested in the studying the Board members’ concrete practices in the hearing room[13]. In order to understand how Board members were using their discretionary powers to identify refugees among the claimants I had to directly observe refugee hearings. I also hoped to learn how refugee-receiving countries like Canada apply international human rights law, control their borders, and allocate opportunities for entry and legal status.

Previous studies show that researchers are generally likely to encounter difficulties when they research state organizations and politically sensitive subjects internationally, such as asylum screening at the airport[14], visa officers’ discretionary practices in visa interviews[15] or the struggles of Roma refugee claimants to be recognized as genuine refugees by the IRB[16]. When I was writing my thesis proposal, I was already worried about access to the field. Refugee hearings are private proceedings and Board members have discretion over who will be admitted to and excluded from the hearing room. The anonymity and confidentiality of the refugee determination hearing are among the main concerns of the IRB, though under most circumstances the presence of outside persons is possible with the consent of the refugee claimant. Under certain conditions, however, I learned that some Board members have excluded outside professionals or even the claimants’ family from the hearing room against the will of the claimants, and some never allow observers.[17]

Unless I encountered Board members who were comfortable with my presence, my research could have been in jeopardy. At first, I did not know who to contact and how to explain what I was doing. In order to gain access to the field, I was planning to introduce myself to refugee advocacy organizations and ask them to facilitate my meeting with refugee claimants, who could then grant me their permission to attend the hearing. Yet, I was not sure this strategy would work.                          .

In what follows, I present a chronological account of the strategies I followed in order to gain access to the refugee hearings. After reaching out to three sets of organizational gatekeepers; refugee advocacy organizations, refugee lawyers and IRB managers, I will explain why refugee lawyers constituted the best partners.
The pre-field research process: unexpected connections

With worries of access in mind, I started reaching out to refugee advocacy organizations by calling offices and sending e-mails, briefly explaining my research (which was in its infancy at the time) and asking if they would be willing to introduce me to refugee claimants. I also visited the IRB Eastern office in Montreal at the Guy Favreau Complex in late February 2012. In contrast with the hearing rooms and private offices of IRB officials, the IRB reception is open to the public. Mine was an impromptu visit and I had no expectations other than simply seeing the physical space.

While there, I met refugee lawyer Georges Teuré, who had just completed representing a refugee claimant at the IRB[18]. I briefly explained my intention to observe refugee hearings to him, and he invited me to observe two hearings with him the following week.[19] Mr. Teuré also introduced me to an official from the IRB Immigration Appeal Division the same day, who gave me the name of a well-known refugee advocate and lawyer, Michael Lewis. Through an online search, I found more information about Mr. Lewis’s affiliate refugee lobbying organization, established by refugee lawyers, and information about its annual conference in March 2012. The conference was open to the public at a fee. I attended the conference and spoke about my research project with Michael and five other refugee lawyers during the breaks. While I contacted these lawyers by e-mail and phone without response, only Mr. Teuré was willing to help. At that point, I booked a lunch meeting with Michael one week after the conference, he agreed to put me in contact with other refugee lawyers, and I observed two other hearings with him during the first week of April. At that point, I was almost confident that I had practically solved the issue of ‘getting in’[20]. This was an important discovery, as around 80 percent of refugee claimants in Canada are represented by refugee lawyers.[21]

Access rationales

During the pre-field-research process, I had had better luck approaching lawyers than advocacy organizations to access refugee hearings, as I had not yet received any response to my e-mails and calls to community organizations in Montreal. As my field research proceeded into late 2013 and I got to know more about the work of these organizations, I learned that they were offering their services to the most disadvantaged of the refugee claimants, such as those who failed to secure legal aid, were detained, or had already been rejected. Gifford’s[22] analysis of Australian service providers and community organizations is very pertinent here because she reminds us that these organizations can be “fierce gatekeepers when it comes to refugee research. As gatekeepers, they may see themselves as refugee protectors – from outsiders and from institutional practices and forms of power that would do them harm.” Since refugee claimants are often seen as vulnerable[23], these organizations take protecting the claimants as their duty. As my field progressed, the members of refugee advocacy organizations that I came to know indicated that they did not want to traumatize the claimants further as a result of my presence in the hearing room, and did not believe that their work matched my research interests. I might have unwittingly triggered this perception of mismatch by communicating to them that the focus of my research was principally on the Board members. I came to know the significance of understanding the larger context of their assistance, such as the legal work put into preparing the refugee claim and the issues unrepresented and/or detained claimants face. Reformulating research objectives to overlap with the mission and concerns of advocacy organizations may be a helpful idea to increase their willingness to help researchers.

The lawyers who were active in refugee lobbying organizations were more willing to participate in my research, however. As one lawyer from Association québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l’immigration (AQAADI) put it, “What you do can be useful for us, for the claimants, and in our communication with the Board.” I argue that, among others, there were two reasons for their willingness, both tied to the extensive transformation of refugee law during my fieldwork. The Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act came into force on December 15, 2012. This policy change, introduced by the Conservative government, aimed to dissuade fraudulent refugee claimants, and accelerated the refugee determination process drastically.

First, some of these lawyers, especially the ones who played active part in lobbying organizations, believed in the importance of research for challenging policy regarding immigration and refugee matters. The lawyers who participated in my research actively referred to their use of public policy research in their successful appeal to the Federal Court to reverse the conservative policy that cut the health benefits of refugee claimants from countries considered democratic and respectful of human rights (DCOs).[24]

Second, after the policy change, the number of claims filed in 2013 dropped to 9,700[25] from 20,461 in 2012[26]. This meant a drastic decrease in the number of clients (refugee claimants) the refugee lawyers could represent. In the interviews I conducted, younger lawyers in particular expressed their concerns of financial instability. As an occupational group, refugee lawyers were under threat. As a researcher, I was offering a willing ear to listen to their problems and concerns, and possibly an opportunity to draw attention to the real problems they faced in the field.

Further attempts to gain access

Aside from these more informal sampling strategies, I also tried to obtain an access permit from the IRB management. I had met both the late Chairperson and the Assistant Deputy Chairperson of the IRB in May 2012 at the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS), and both had found my research interesting. The late Chairperson had encouraged me to make a formal demand for an access permit to the IRB Communications Department to observe a number of hearings. Following a three month deliberation, my demand was refused on the basis of being beyond the operational capabilities of the Montreal branch. I also inquired about the likelihood of undertaking a short internship at the IRB office. My aim was to see the Board members in their everyday collegial context and see what their work consisted of outside of the hearing room. However, I was told that this was not possible.[27]

During summer and fall 2012, I attended the general assemblies and local activities of provincial and national refugee advocacy/lobbying organizations and observed a few judicial review hearings at the Federal Court.[28] The refugee lawyers’ lobbying organizations’ meetings and my visits to the Federal Court, however, were the most fruitful ones for meeting refugee lawyers and asking them to invite me to the refuge hearings.[29] At that point, mentioning the support of a few well-known refugee lawyers who were associated with my research to the new lawyers I met was a successful strategy. Towards the end of 2012, when I was ready to observe refugee hearings (after receiving the Research Ethics Certificate), I had had twelve lawyers to introduce me to the refugee claimants that they represented. In just over a year, I managed to observe 50 refugee hearings.


In this opinion piece, I briefly explained how I negotiated access to the hearing room at the IRB. If I had waited to hear from the advocacy and service organizations, without following other strategies of access, I would most likely have observed only a few refugee hearings. If I had stopped my efforts to gain access to the hearing room after the IRB’s official rejection, my research would not have been possible. As argued above, my limited understanding of refugee decision-making and communication of these issues to protective refugee advocates may have resulted in their hesitancy to assist with my research. Refugee lawyers, on the other hand, being one of the most prominent actors in the hearing room, had other professional concerns and believed that my research could potentially be of help to them.[30] When there are access issues, it is important to be flexible and to persevere at the initial stages of research, reaching out to several gatekeepers for access opportunities.



Beaudoin, J. C. (2014). Challenging Essentialized Representations of Romani Identities in Canada. (Doctorate Monograph), The University of Western Ontario Retrieved from

Belousov, K., Horlick-Jones, T., Bloor, M., Gilinskiy, Y., Golbert, V., Kostikovsky, Y., . . . Pentsov, D. (2007). Any port in a storm: fieldwork difficulties in dangerous and crisis-ridden settings. Qualitative Research, 7(2), 155-175.

Block, K., Warr, D., Gibbs, L., & Riggs, E. (2012). Addressing Ethical and Methodological Challenges in Research with Refugee-background Young People: Reflections from the Field. Journal of Refugee Studies, 26(1), 69-87

Block, K., Riggs, E., & Haslam, N. (2013). Values and Vulnerabilities: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Australian Academic Press.

CIC. (2013). Facts and figures 2012 – Immigration overview: Permanent and temporary residents. Retrieved from

Clark-Kazak, C. (2009). Power and politics in migration narrative methodology: Research with young Congolese migrants in Uganda. Migration Letters, 6(2), 175-182.

Crépeau, F., & Nakache, D. (2008). Critical Spaces in the Canadian Refugee Determination System: 1989-2002. International Journal of Refugee Law, 20, 50-122.

Elliott, L. (2015, May 16). Refugee board members’ rulings varied widely in 2014, data suggests, CBC News, Retrieved from

Gifford, S. (2013). To respect or protect? Whose values shape the ethics or refugee research? In K. Block, E. Riggs, & N. Haslam (Eds.), Values and vulnerabilities: the ethics of research with refugees and asylum seekers (pp. 41-59). Sydney: Australian Academic Press.

Jacobsen, K., & Landau, L. B. (2003). The Dual Imperative in Refugee Research: Some Methodological and Ethical Considerations in Social Science Research on Forced Migration. Disasters, 27(3), 185-206.

Jubany, O. (2011). Constructing truths in a culture of disbelief: Understanding asylum screening from within. International Sociology, 26(1), 74-94.

Humphreys, A. (2014, April 15). Refugee claim acceptance in Canada appears to be ‘luck of the draw’ despite reforms, analysis shows. National Post. Retrieved from

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Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy : dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Lofland, J., Snow, D. A., Anderson, L., & Lofland, L. H. (2006). Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis: Wadsworth Incorporated Fulfillment.

Macklin, A. (2009). Refugee Roulette in the Canadian Casino. In Jaya Ramji-Nogales , Philip G. Schrag, Edward M. Kennedy (Eds.), Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication and Proposals for Reform (pp. 135-163). New York: NYU Press.

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Rousseau, C., & Foxen, P. (2006). Le mythe du réfugié menteur: un mensonge indispensable? L’évolution psychiatrique, 71, 505-520.

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Wood, E. (2006). The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conflict Zones. Qualitative Sociology, 29(3), 373-386.

[1] This group includes a broad group of officials who have supervisory duties and act as liaisons between their team and upper management. Their titles range from Regional Coordinator to Deputy Chairperson. These persons are distinct from the IRB Board Members who make refugee determinations.

[2] For ethical conduct of research involving humans, researchers must have their research projects approved by the Research Ethics Boards of their home institution.

[3]Such as Kynshilehto & Puumala (2013) and Schoenholtz, Schrag, & Ramji-Nogales (2014)

[4] I was not aware of the codified barriers that prevented interviewing IRB Board members when I was writing my research project and seeking ethics approval. Interviewing these officials was not among my principal, but rather secondary objectives. However, in order to comprehend the organizational functioning of the IRB, interviewing IRB managers/officers was important, and there are no administrative barriers preventing such communication.

[5] Belousov et al., 2007; Clark-Kazak, 2009; Jacobsen & Landau , 2003; Reny, 2011; Wood, 2006

[6] Beaudoin, 2014; Jubany, 2011; Satzewich, 2014

[7] See Block, Riggs, & Haslam (2013) and Block, Warr, Gibbs, & Riggs (2012) for two recent discussions on these issues.

[8] Pierce, 1995, p. 95

[9] For a more detailed description of the research project see Tomkinson (2015).

[10] Macklin, 2009; Rehaag, 2008

[11] Elliott, 2015; Humphreys, 2014; Keung, 2011, 2012; McKie, 2009; Sanders, 2013; Sheppard, 2012

[12] Crépeau & Nakache, 2008; Rousseau & Foxen, 2005; 2006

[13] Lipsky, 1980

[14] Jubany, 2011

[15] Satzewich, 2014

[16] Beaudoin, 2014

[17] Canadian Council for Refugees (2012) The Experience of Refugee Claimants at Refugee Hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board

[18]All names have been changed to protect anonymity.

[19] Mr. Teuré added that he would have to check with his clients, the refugee claimants he was representing, and get back to me regarding permission to attend.

[20] Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2006, p. 33.

[21] Rehaag, 2011.

[22] 2013, p.51.

[23] Manjikian, 2010.

[24] The lawyers from the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers along with the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care appealed at the Federal Court of Canada against the health care cuts. The decision written by the Honorable Madam Justice Mactavish shows the number of research affidavits written by several experts and academics. SeeT-356-13 Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and others v. Attorney General of Canada and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, 2014 FC 651, Retrieved from .

[25] IRB, 2014.

[26] CIC, 2013.

[27] I managed to interview three Board members and seven former Board members, after one current Board member helped me establish contact with others. Interviews took place in Summer/Fall 2013 and Summer/Fall 2014 in Montreal and Toronto.

[28] The Federal Court hearings are open to the public.

[29] During 2013, I became an active participant in a few refugee associations. I volunteered at several refugee lawyers’ activities and national conferences, and organized a yoga fundraising event for a refugee lawyers’ association. My eagerness to help definitely increased the lawyers’ willingness to introduce me to their clients.

[30] To give a brief example, in April 2015, I was invited by Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers to give a presentation on the impact of quality of counsel in refugee decision-making.