Sample Procedural Approach: Undocumented and Asylum-Seeking Narrators

Conducting oral histories with undocumented or asylum-seeking narrators presents challenges that might not be readily apparent to interviewers, institutions, and other oral history project participants. The following is a list of practices and considerations when working with this particularly vulnerable population. It is not meant to be comprehensive but merely to open a field of inquiry into creating an ethical, legal, and moral framework for collaboration.

Project Planning: Creating a Rubric

Many potential narrators who are undocumented, have detainee status, or are asylum seekers may be willing to be interviewed for a project, knowing full well the potential risks (legal and otherwise) to themselves, their families, and other people they’re connected to. As an interviewer or project lead, what ethical and legal responsibilities do you have in this situation? If they’re willing to take the risk, should you be willing, also? By not providing these narrators an opportunity to be heard, are you silencing them or robbing them of their agency? In addressing these questions and more, you may want to consider creating a rubric or set of guidelines to help all project participants make informed decisions.

 For example, the Australian oral history project, Behind the Wire, was organized around a group of interviewers wanting to shed light on the experiences of asylum seekers in mandatory detention on islands off the Australian coast. The interviewers created a legal classification system for potential narrators according to their visa status. The rubric included former detainees who had become Australian citizens up to asylum seekers currently in a detention facility. Through this process, the interview team was able to determine what they felt were “low-risk” narrators, “middle-of-the-risk-scale” narrators, and “high-risk” narrators. By creating this rubric, the project leads were better able to make ethical decisions about whom they would interview and could better articulate the potential risks to their narrators.

Pre-Interview Planning

When preparing for interviews with undocumented narrators, consider the following:

  •  Provide consent forms in a narrator’s chosen language, but also don’t insist on a signed hard copy. Many narrators may not (for good reason) want a “paper trail” with potentially sensitive information about themselves being created. In many cases, an audio recording of consent being given is an option.
  • Give narrators the choice of anonymity. Many narrators may choose to employ a pseudonym to protect themselves and the people they’re connected to. As an interviewer/project lead, it is your responsibility to articulate that anonymity is not a guarantee of narrator safety and may not be able to be maintained under certain circumstances.
  • Explain to narrators and other project participants the limitations of your legal obligations.
  • In preparation for the interview, discuss with your narrator and other project participants whom the interview may impact. This could include family members, co-workers, friends, and more.

After the Interview

When project interviews have been completed, there are additional considerations for the editing and storing/archiving of the audio and text files. Many of these considerations should be addressed during project planning: 

  • Altering sensitive information in the transcript. Narrators may share information during their interview that contains details that may put them or others at risk. This could include physical descriptions about location, communities, or mentions of specific people the narrator is connected to. Some of this information may need to be altered to protect narrator safety.
  • Safety and access of audio and text. For example, if the project has institutional or academic partners, how will narrators access the material? Storing the materials on a university-sponsored database or CARTA (where multiple people have access) might be the norm but does little to protect narrator safety when it comes to sensitive information needing protection. Can other storage options be explored?
  • Ensuring narrator control of public displays of information related to the project. This includes narratives or any information about the narrator and other project participants. All materials should be vetted and approved by narrators before being publicly shared.
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