2.1 Introduction

Conducting research about undocumented migrants is invariably challenging. Very rarely is accurate information and comprehensive statistical data on their demographic, economic, and social situations available. Even their total numbers and locations in towns, regions, or countries are unlikely to be known for certain. In addition, the methodological approaches and methods used to study undocumented migrants require profound reflection (Düvell et al. 2010).

Public authorities tend to gather specific, but sparse, information on undocumented migrants. They might be covered to a certain extent in national censuses, but such information quickly becomes obsolete. Undocumented migrants are part of an irregular migration phenomenon that very seldom follows linear development stages. Some countries, such as Germany, collect longitudinal systematic survey data on refugees and asylum seekers, which may contain information that can be extended to undocumented migrants (Brücker et al. 2019). Even in Germany, however, the number of undocumented migrants is low compared with asylum seekers or refugees; hence, gathering survey data among such small populations of asylum-related migrants means that relatively few respond to the surveys. Even national census estimations can be inaccurate (see, for example, Fazel-Zarandi et al. (2018) and Capps et al. (2018) regarding the number of undocumented migrants in the US, and the Pew Research Center (2019) for the situation in Europe).

In 2019, the US-based Pew Research Center utilised four methods (residual, demographic, regularisation, and proportional ratio) to estimate the unauthorised immigrant population in Europe. Among unauthorised migrants, they included—rather controversially—asylum seekers, who (at least temporally) had a legal right to reside in the EU (although some countries, such as Hungary and Greece, have recently limited the general right to request asylum). Removing the number of asylum seekers from estimated populations, one can utilise these methods to estimate the number of undocumented migrants in the EU in situations where there is no reliable information about their number (see also Clandestino 2009a, b, 2019; Düvell 2011).

In all countries, police and other enforcement authorities usually have more accurate data on undocumented migrants, but it is rarely openly available for research purposes. Activists and NGOs are in touch with undocumented migrants, and they might have good local estimates of the numbers in the areas in which they operate; however, they are often reluctant to provide information, even for researchers. Their reasons vary from safeguarding undocumented migrants to personal gatekeeping interests. Journalists usually provide snapshot newspaper articles based on very few interviews with undocumented migrants and/or experts studying them; hence, they rarely have any means to estimate the number of undocumented migrants. In most countries, scholars conduct research about undocumented migrants, but they usually focus on narrow topics, do not study entire populations, and seldom make their data publicly available. In addition, even when they have good estimates of the undocumented populations, it can take years for their empirical research results to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

Stakeholders have different positions and viewpoints regarding undocumented migrants. Researchers therefore have to rely (or not rely) on incomplete secondary data and try to roughly estimate (from various sources, reports, and articles) their numbers, backgrounds, and situations—or conduct empirical field research themselves. This is the situation in Finland, except that, so far, very little research has been conducted about undocumented migrants, and the national and local public authorities possess very little information about them.

In this chapter, we discuss the methodological challenges of conducting research about undocumented migrants, especially in situations in which only limited previous data is available and undocumented migrants are particularly cautious about attempts to study them. As future guidance for other researchers and students, this chapter explains in detail how we conducted our own study about undocumented migrants in Finland. To underpin our methodological choices, we applied other scholars’ research in the field (see, for instance, Düvell et al. 2010; van Liempt and Bilger 2012; Wayne 1982), but we faced many challenges, made compromises during the research, and had to deal with incomplete or untraceable data. In the end, we obtained both quantitative survey data and qualitative ethnographic data on undocumented migrants in a situation in which no comprehensive data or general information was available. We also gathered additional viewpoints from local authorities and various experts and workers who were dealing with undocumented migrants.

In the following section, we present our quantitative and qualitative empirical data, which were mostly collected from the field. The rationale behind our choice of methods was similar to that of Van Meeteren, who declared in her book about irregular migration in Belgium and the Netherlands: ‘Since I aim to study irregular migrants as active agents, I need methods that enable me to study the practices and actions of irregular migrants’ (Van Meeteren 2014: 45). We also mention the key secondary sources and explain the data analysis methods. In Sects. 2.3 and 2.4, we present the results we obtained, pointing out where we succeeded and where we failed. In Sect. 2.3, we explain in detail why and how we collected the quantitative survey data from undocumented migrants, and the advantages and constraints of developing paper and online surveys. In Sect. 2.4, we describe our ethnographic fieldwork and how the data were collected over a 10-month period. In Sect. 2.5, we discuss research ethics, which is particularly important when conducting research about undocumented migrants. We also discuss the opportunities and challenges of sharing research results with the research participants and cooperating with public authorities, NGOs, and the media (see also Chap. 7). Finally, in Sect. 2.6, we summarise and conclude the chapter and return to the book’s specific topics.

2.2 Research Data and Methods

It is never easy to conduct research about undocumented migrants. Most of them simply want to live ordinary lives, but that is impossible because of the various legal, economic, and social constraints they experience (see Chaps. 3, 4, 5 and 6). Most of them are thus obliged to live in the grey zone between legal, semi-legal or illegal activities. For these reasons, many of them have doubts about exposing themselves to a researcher, since such exposure might attract unwanted attention to an individual, or to collective undocumented migrants, making their situations worse.

When conducting research about a target population that is not easily reachable and, in fact, remains mostly hidden, researchers need to develop a good strategy with clear objectives and a flexible implementation plan. As discussed in Chap. 1, our task was to discover who the undocumented migrants are in Finland, what key issues they face in their everyday lives, their migration patterns and aspirations, and how the internet and social media relate to their wishes and practices. We maintained this comprehensive objective throughout the research but, at times, needed to redefine the research focus, make compromises with the data, and reflect more than usual on the data collection and analysis (see Sects. 2.3 and 2.4), to ensure the reliability and validity of the acquired data, as well as the analysis and interpretation thereafter. In addition, constant attention to research ethics was imperative at all times (see Sect. 2.5).

To obtain different perspectives on the everyday lives of undocumented migrants, we decided to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. In research about undocumented migrants, it is advisable to use either large amounts of quantitative data and related statistical methods, or small amounts of qualitative data and interpretative methods. We chose to utilise various methods to obtain both broad, extensive data and deep, intensive data on undocumented migrants (Düvell 2012). The combination of different methods lessened the risk of biased data. Despite quantitative and qualitative methods usually being seen as different, or even opposing, approaches, we decided to combine them interactively through triangulation. Triangulation is a common approach to gain different perspectives on the data and methods by combining multiple theories, methods, and empirical materials (Flick 2018). Düvell et al. (2010: 22) stated that ‘all applied methods and data presented ought to be doubled-checked and triangulated in order to ensure their accuracy and unbiased nature’. We utilised triangulation (by employing various data, theories, methods, and researchers) to simultaneously obtain a detailed and balanced perspective on undocumented migrants and, through such cross-checking, enhance the reliability and validity of our data—in particular because there were no previous broad studies about undocumented migrants in Finland.

Our main empirical data came from one survey of undocumented migrants in Finland; two surveys of local authorities in Finland regarding undocumented migrants; and participant ethnographic observation of undocumented migrants in various spaces (public and/or ‘protected’ spaces, such as day centres run by NGOs) in Finland. To collect supportive empirical material, we conducted interviews with experts and workers dealing with undocumented migrants, such as NGO volunteers, police officers, social workers, community workers, civil servants, and medical practitioners. Some interviews—with social and community workers, NGO volunteers, and civil servants—were carried out in places that undocumented migrants frequented; therefore, they were fully included in the ethnographic notes, because they formed a relational network that undocumented migrants were connected to and relied upon. These observations and interviews were not recorded, because recording might have impaired the flow of the conversation, and the topics under discussion were very sensitive; therefore, we made notes later about the key points highlighted during the interviews. In addition, we had various informal meetings and talks with authorities, NGOs, and other stakeholders dealing with undocumented migrants, and we used many kinds of legal and policy materials and research articles about undocumented migrants. In the following, we explain in detail our main data and the methods we used.

Undocumented migrants answered a semi-structured survey (92 questions) conducted between October 2018 and January 2019. After cleaning the received data, the final analysis included answers from 100 undocumented migrants (this exact number was a coincidence; see Sect. 2.3). The final SPSS (Statistical Product and Service Solutions) database contained 100 rows (one row per respondent) and 301 columns (usually one column per question, but more for open-ended questions). The structural questions were directly coded and entered into the database. The open-ended survey questions were categorised in the NVivo program using earlier studies as a reference, and then entered into the database. The main analysis methods applied to the survey data were descriptive and nonparametric statistical methods; for example, proportions (percentages) of respondents in different categories; cross tables, including background variables; and statistically significant correlations between the researched factors. Due to the relatively small number of respondents, it was not always possible to apply advanced statistical methods.

We took field notes based on participant ethnographic observation of undocumented migrants in April 2018–January 2019 (usually 1 or 2 days per week for 10 months). We met and observed over 100 undocumented migrants in various circumstances, about 20 of whom we met and talked with regularly over several months (see Sect. 2.4). We did not make notes while meeting and observing them; the observation notes were written down after each day’s fieldwork. The final analysis included notes totalling about 70,000 words, and we applied thematic content analysis to analyse them. The coding of the data was an inductive process, with no theory applied to the data; instead, the collected data drove the theoretical analysis. Keywords and full sentences regarding housing, work, healthcare, the asylum process, residence permits, family, friends, social networks, and aspirations for the future were coded with different colours to assist with the subsequent identifications of the main topics, which were later included in the survey. These topics underpinned both the analysis and the results (see Chaps. 4, 5 and 6).

Finnish municipalities (local authorities) answered two short (10- and 12-question) semi-structured surveys concerning undocumented migrants in Finland and the services provided to them. The first survey was conducted by telephone in December 2017, and all 311 municipalities in Finland responded (100% response rate to all questions). For the second survey in December 2018, municipalities with undocumented migrants in 2017 were selected (based on the answers they gave in 2017), together with a few other large municipalities, totalling 42 Finnish municipalities (100% response rate to all questions). The telephone survey was surprisingly effective, although we had to make hundreds of phone calls. The resulting SPSS database for the first survey had 311 rows (one row per municipality) and 18 columns (usually one column per question, but several in the case of open-ended questions) and, for the second survey, 42 rows (one row per municipality) and 16 columns (usually one column per question, but several in the case of open-ended questions). For these data, descriptive and nonparametric statistical methods were used; for example, proportions (percentages) of respondents (i.e. municipalities) in different categories, cross tables showing the background variables (such as the size of the municipality and whether the municipality had undocumented migrants or not), and statistically significant correlations between the researched factors.

We collected and contextualised the above-mentioned data and supplemented it with supporting material. We conducted semi-structured interviews in April 2018–January 2019 with 20 experts and workers dealing with undocumented migrants in Finland. The interviewer made notes after each interview, and these were used to gain a better understanding of the legislative, administrative, and practical perspectives on the situations of Finland’s undocumented migrants. Another round of interviews was conducted in October 2020 with experts, NGOs, and authorities that had contact with undocumented migrants, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on undocumented migrants in Finland and, especially, their access to healthcare. These interviews were conducted by telephone or on Zoom, due to the health security measures necessitated by the pandemic. We also collected material from secondary sources. Important sources were international and national laws and regulations—in particular, the legislative framework for asylums, refusal of entry, and deportation. Additionally, we compared international, national, and local policies on undocumented migrants. We referred to academic literature concerning national, European, and international migration; research ethics; and qualitative and quantitative methods. We also read news items in newspapers and magazines, and followed several social media channels about undocumented migrants and the current societal response to the phenomenon. These provided useful contextual and background information for our study.

2.3 Survey of Undocumented Migrants

As mentioned in Chap. 1, no comprehensive data pertains to undocumented migrants in Finland. Over the years, their number was estimated to be in the hundreds and, from the early 2010s onwards, a few thousand (Keskimäki et al. 2014). In particular, after many asylum seekers were rejected by the asylum process that started after they arrived in the autumn of 2015, their number started to increase. In 2017, we asked several key experts from public authorities (including various ministries and the health authorities), police, NGOs, and scholars for their estimates of the number of undocumented migrants in Finland. Some specialists refused to give an estimate, but the rest gave estimates between the lowest and highest numbers. Finally, after comparing these different estimates, we deduced that there were 2000–4000 undocumented migrants (excluding EU citizen visa overstayers) in Finland in the latter part of 2017 (Gadd 2017). This number resonated well with the expert and public authority estimates given a few years earlier (i.e. 3000–3500 people; see Sisäministeriö 2012; Keskimäki et al. 2014). During 2017–2018, however, thousands of new asylum applications were rejected and the courts started to reject the appeals of asylum seekers more frequently; hence, based on our own research and consultations with public authorities and experts, we formed an estimate of 3500–4000 undocumented migrants in Finland at the end of 2018 (Jauhiainen et al. 2019; for the details of this estimation, see Sects. 3.4 and 4.2). It was thus evident that, along with ethnographic observation and expert interviews, we would need more comprehensive and structured data to describe the situation of these thousands of undocumented migrants. Our goal was to obtain replies from 100–200 undocumented migrants in Finland, which would be around 3–6% of the estimated number of undocumented migrants in the country. Authorities and scholars did not possess such data, so we had to design a method to acquire the data. In principle, there were two options: over a hundred face-to-face interviews or a written survey.

We initially considered face-to-face interviews, because they would have allowed us to better control the data acquisition and quality of data, as well as influence the sample by selecting undocumented migrants according to their demographic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. Below, we explain the challenges we would have faced if we had opted for the interviews, and the reasons why, finally, we chose to conduct a survey.

Our research topics were broad, so interviewing a hundred or hundreds of undocumented migrants about their backgrounds, everyday lives, journeys to and within Finland, migration aspirations, social media use, and a number of other topics would have required a great deal of time and effort. One such interview could easily have taken more than an hour, even using a structured interview schedule.

Language was also an issue because, for the vast majority of interviews, we would have needed an interpreter and, for our research, fluent mutual understanding between us and the undocumented migrants was vital. Although some undocumented migrants are at least moderately proficient in Finnish or English (see Sect. 4.2), for many questions they would have needed to use their native tongue (for example, Arabic, Sorani Kurdish, or Farsi/Dari, which we were largely unfamiliar with). Furthermore, these migrants came from many different countries and spoke many different languages and dialects. We would therefore have needed several interpreters. In addition, focusing only on one language group at time would have meant, in practice, potentially missing a unique opportunity to talk to an undocumented migrant who spoke a language other than the one we were prepared for. Only if the research project involved 5–10 interviewers and interpreters in different languages, on the move for several weeks, would it have been possible to interview a large number of undocumented migrants.

However, using an interpreter during an interview also poses potential challenges. The phenomenon of a large number of undocumented migrants is novel in Finland and has been under-researched, and undocumented migrants do not generally trust researchers. The interviewed undocumented migrants might not have trusted an interpreter even if they eventually came to trust us (the researchers). Moreover, such an interview (with one researcher and an interpreter) could have resembled situations that many undocumented migrants faced with the authorities; for example, during the asylum process. In such situations, an immigration officer asks about the migrant’s background, journey, and so on, and an interpreter facilitates the conversation (see Sect. 3.3). Scholars could easily resemble bureaucrats and/or the authorities when asking questions about the migrants’ lives, but giving them little in return—apart from explanations (depending on the research method) to help the undocumented migrants better understand their complex situations and their available options.

There were also cultural barriers regarding gender and age; for example, it is sometimes inappropriate for a male researcher to interview a female undocumented migrant, especially if the female is alone during the interview. When this female is accompanied by a male family member or a trusted person, his presence often influences the interview. Similarly, even if a researcher intends to conduct a one-to-one interview with an undocumented migrant, it can end up with a large group answering, commenting, or even arguing about the ‘right’ answers.

It was also not possible to outsource the interviews to native-speaker research assistants. This was often done in countries in which undocumented migrants have been researched for a long period of time (see, for example, Collins 2018 and Düvell et al. 2010), and there are advantages (language, trust, cultural understanding, etc.) to a semi-structural interview being conducted by a member of the same ethnic group, rather than a representative of the titular nation or another Western scholar. A problem in such cases, however, is that the principal investigator cannot obtain the additional valuable information that one usually obtains when conducting a direct face-to-face interview.

Practical and ethical issues also influenced our decision about whether or not to use interviews. Many undocumented migrants are in hiding and extremely difficult to recognise (see Chap. 1). It is challenging to reach an interested undocumented migrant and, when one is found, it is then difficult to find a suitable place in which to conduct an interview. Many undocumented migrants have no fixed abode or cannot expose safe places to other people (such as researchers). Conducting a long interview outdoors in cold weather (in winter in Finland, in particular) would have been impossible, and using the day centres where undocumented migrants gathered would have caused disturbance and anxiety for some of them.

Furthermore, when an undocumented migrant spends a long time with a Western/Finnish person (especially if that person takes notes during the meeting), it can seem suspicious to other undocumented migrants (who do not necessarily know what information is sought and for what purposes). Such an interview might therefore negatively influence the social networks of the interviewee. A face-to-face interview might also attract the attention of ordinary passers-by and thus lead involuntarily to identification of the interviewee as an undocumented migrant. Researchers could unwittingly lead authorities and enforcement units to undocumented migrants. In addition, if three or four friends wished to take part in such an interview (which often happens when a close group forms), it would mean long waiting times for others, or the individual interview could turn into a group interview that would influence the answers of the single interviewee. The number of foreign-background people in Finland is quite small and earlier research has shown that people belonging to ethnic minorities are under surveillance by several agencies in many kinds of urban spaces. Unwanted police stops and experiences of ethnic profiling are part of their lives, both personally and through stories they hear about other minority people’s encounters (Keskinen et al. 2018).

2.3.1 Conducting the Survey

Based on the circumstances discussed previously, we chose to design a written survey to target undocumented migrants; however, conducting a written survey among them was no easier than conducting face-to-face interviews. As their stay in the country is considered illegal, undocumented migrants do not have an official address (at least in Finland), so a postal survey is not feasible. Furthermore, they would have been suspicious of official-looking letters. It is potentially very challenging to get an undocumented migrant to write about him−/herself on a form sent by people he/she does not know. An undocumented migrant needs to consider what risks and benefits could emerge from responding to such a survey. In addition, undocumented migrants are usually dispersed across many parts of the country, so they are difficult to reach. In many cases, undocumented migrants also speak many different languages; thus, if the aim is to reach all of them, substantial effort would be needed in terms of translation and knowing which languages to use in the survey.

The survey items were designed to address our research interests. In formulating the questions, along with research conducted by other scholars (Chiuri et al. 2004; Font and Méndez 2013; National Research Council 2013; Sigona 2012), we took into account the former surveys we had conducted in Finland among asylum seekers (Jauhiainen 2017), as well as in various other countries among asylum seekers and undocumented migrants along their asylum-related journeys towards and within the EU (Jauhiainen 2017a, b, 2018; Jauhiainen and Eyvazlu 2018; Jauhiainen and Vorobeva 2018; Jauhiainen et al. 2019). The precise questions were drafted by a research team. The draft version of the questionnaire was tested with a few undocumented migrants before the survey form was finalised.

As mentioned, some (but not all) undocumented migrants in Finland speak English or Finnish (see also Sect. 4.7); therefore, the questionnaire was translated into all the major languages used by them in Finland—Arabic, Dari, English, Farsi, Finnish, Kurdish Sorani, and Somali. According to our estimates, these languages are spoken by over 90% of undocumented migrants in Finland. The translations were carried out by native speakers who had already been engaged with the themes of the survey; thus, they understood the terminology. When necessary, translations were also double-checked by another translator.

At the beginning of the survey, its purpose and the underpinning ethical principles were briefly explained, so that all respondents were aware of why and how this research was conducted. No reply to any specific question was compulsory, so the respondents could omit any questions they did not want to answer or which made them uncomfortable. Confidentiality was emphasised. All replies were anonymous, so it was not possible to trace the respondents from the completed questionnaires, and this was explained on the survey form; therefore, the respondents were likely to answer the questions honestly.

It is impossible to reach a large number of undocumented migrants face to face in one place at the same time, at least in Finland. We therefore decided to provide two options for the survey. One option was a traditional paper questionnaire. After completing it, the respondent could send it to our university using an attached anonymous prepaid envelope, or leave it in a specific secure place to which a specific person was instructed to take the questionnaires, thus maintaining confidentiality. We would later collect the completed questionnaires from these places. The other option was an anonymous online survey, completed using a computer, tablet, or mobile phone. The online answers were transmitted to a database as soon as the respondent started to answer the survey, but no information about the sending device was traceable. Unfortunately, the program we used (Webropol) does not support Farsi, so the Farsi questionnaire was only available on paper.

Another challenge in conducting a survey is that researchers cannot be sure who answers the survey (i.e. whether he/she is an undocumented migrant or not; see the following sections). Distributing the paper survey randomly to many places, or advertising the online survey on various social media sites, could have attracted all kinds of migrants, including regular migrants and asylum seekers. In addition, the survey could be disturbed by people (including internet trolls) who were opposed to undocumented migrants and could give fake answers, pretending to be undocumented migrants (although this would require consistent answers from such respondents).

The survey consisted of 92 questions, of which 55 were multiple choice (yes/no, I agree, I don’t know, and I disagree); 28 were semi-open-ended (e.g. asking about age, country of origin, or current employment); and 9 were open-ended (e.g. asking what they liked most or least about Finland). After the introduction, the survey asked simple questions about the respondent’s background, such as his/her gender, age, education level, country of origin, and so on. That was followed by a section in which the respondent was asked about his/her journeys to and within Finland, then about his/her everyday life (accommodation, work, family, social networks), use of the internet and social media, the asylum process in Finland, and future migration aspirations. Finally, open-ended questions asked about respondents’ experiences in Finland and any other issues they would like to mention.

As previously stated, the research team conducted a survey between October 2018 and January 2019. It took more time than expected, so the time span became rather long. Regarding the online survey, the link was sent out in November 2018 to the immigration services of all municipalities in Finland. It was also sent to the email addresses of Global Clinic (in Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, Lahti, Joensuu, and Oulu), an organization providing healthcare for undocumented migrants; Red Cross Finland; the Helsinki Deaconess Institute; the Evangelic Lutheran Church of Finland, and several other relevant NGOs and private citizens we knew were dealing with undocumented migrants. The link was also published on selected social media channels, in particular Twitter and Facebook (with postings in the languages spoken by the undocumented migrants). Some of the public authority and NGO receivers of the link informed undocumented migrants about the survey, but many did not, for various reasons.

The paper survey was distributed in the national capital, Helsinki (which is the main location of undocumented migrants in Finland), and its surrounding area, including the large cities of Espoo and Vantaa, which also host many undocumented migrants, as well as in Turku and its surrounding area (in which there are some undocumented migrants, though to a lesser extent). Some questionnaires were directly distributed, day and night, by the researchers in key places where undocumented migrants gathered (the places cannot be named here for security and ethical reasons). Questionnaires were distributed appropriately at the discretion of the selected NGOs, civil servants, and community and social workers.

The manual distribution of the survey also posed problems. Aside from requiring a good deal of time from researchers in the field to distribute it, obtaining replies was not easy. Those undocumented migrants with whom contact had already been made during the ongoing ethnographic research were, in general, more willing to participate in the survey, but even for them, some questions were unclear and other questions made them suspicious. If they expressed such concerns, we explained the questions and suggested that they ignore questions that made them feel uneasy. On many occasions, intermediaries whom most of the undocumented migrants knew also helped with the explanations. Some respondents very actively expressed their wish to complete the survey, and it turned out to be an empowering (see Iosifides 2003; Ross 2017) and liberating experience for many undocumented migrants. They were given the opportunity to voice their opinions and even express their anger and frustration. We witnessed similar feelings among undocumented migrants in other countries when survey sheets were delivered face to face (see Merisalo and Jauhiainen 2020a), particularly among those undocumented migrants (and asylum seekers) who had not previously been approached by scholars.

Challenges also related to the face-to-face survey delivery for undocumented migrants who did not know the researchers well. Some migrants were suspicious about the survey topics and whether, for instance, we were collecting their personal data to report it to the police. We explained to them, with extra care, the research purpose, the anonymity of the survey, and that they were completely free to decide whether or not reply to the questions. If their reaction remained negative or they seemed unwilling to answer a question, we did not insist, and no one was forced to answer the survey. In conclusion, all replies to the survey were freely and spontaneously given, without any extra effort or exercise of power from our side. This substantially increased the validity of the data received.

As explained in the following, most of the undocumented migrants whom we could easily reach in public spaces or day centres in Finland were young male adults from Iraq. We had substantially fewer possibilities, for example, to deliver the survey directly to female undocumented migrants. Due to ethical principles, we could not request or demand that the people we met reveal the places where we could meet undocumented female migrants and/or provide better access to them. This could have put both the information giver and the new person in either danger or an inconvenient situation. Often, these women live hiding in shelters, or anyway in places that need to remain hidden, so the appearance of a researcher there could have caused feelings of insecurity among them due to the place being exposed to others (i.e. to us).

2.3.2 Responses to the Survey

In total, we received 262 replies to the survey targeting undocumented migrants. Of the replies, 75 (29%) came from the paper survey and 187 (71%) from the online survey; however, we could not use all the replies to study undocumented migrants. There were a few particularities in the responses to the survey, especially regarding the online survey, and we describe these in the following paragraphs.

Our first task was to check how completely the respondents answered the questions. As mentioned, the survey was rather long (92 questions) and it took about 20–40 min to complete, depending on the literacy skills of the respondents. As discussed previously, the respondents could leave any question unanswered if they wished. Furthermore, there were some questions that respondents could not answer (for example, if they were unemployed, they were asked to skip the questions regarding their current job). In addition, there were open-ended questions the respondents could answer if they wanted to specify certain issues, but this was not always needed or relevant.

Most of the paper surveys were filled out almost completely. If a person started to fill it out, but then decided to abandon it, he/she would probably not return the survey. Ultimately, we received 75 replies to the paper survey from undocumented migrants. Of these, we had to exclude 13 (17%) from the final analysis, because the respondents had provided too few answers (to be included, the respondent had to answer at least 64 of the 92 questions). Of all the paper survey respondents, 62 (83%) completed it sufficiently.

The situation with the received replies to the online survey was different. Most replies were not complete, and part of the reason was technical: if a person started to answer the questionnaire (i.e. he/she opened it), the program (Webropol) registered this as a reply, even if the respondent abandoned the questionnaire after the first question. Ultimately, we received 187 replies to the online survey from undocumented migrants. Of these, 84 (45%) had answered only some demographic background questions or fewer than 64 questions; therefore, we had to reject 84 (45%) of the online replies, because the surveys were incomplete. Of all the online respondents, 103 (55%) completed the survey sufficiently and submitted it.

We thus received replies from 165 people (63% of all respondents) who filled out the questionnaire almost completely; however, we were then faced with the challenging task of determining whether the respondent was an undocumented migrant. As mentioned in Chap. 1 and discussed more profoundly in Chap. 3, there is no legal definition of an undocumented migrant in Finland. An undocumented migrant is generally a person who has no legal right to reside in the country; however, people can become undocumented migrants in various ways, and shift back and forth between legal and illegal statuses. In the case of asylum seekers, a person can be rejected by the asylum process (thus moving from the category of an asylum seeker with the right to stay in the country to the category of an undocumented migrant who does not have this right). The same person can, immediately or later, submit another asylum application, and thus his/her status changes from undocumented migrant to asylum seeker again (with the renewed right to stay in the country). Furthermore, during the asylum process, a person can lose the right to reside in Finland. The first negative asylum decision can be appealed against in court. Only if the appeal is sent on time (within 21 days of the negative asylum decision) can the person remain in Finland; otherwise, he/she must leave the country. Consequently, two people with exactly the same administrative status (e.g. an asylum appeal lodged with a court) can have completely different rights with regard to remaining in Finland (one has the right and another does not). There are also people whose asylum applications have been rejected, but who cannot be expelled from Finland, because their country of origin will not receive them or the authorities cannot provide them with the required travel and identification documents. Furthermore, a person (a ‘common’ migrant, but not necessarily an asylum seeker) can have a visa to enter Finland and forget to apply for its extension or a residence permit after legitimately spending time in Finland; thus, his/her living in Finland becomes irregular or illegal. Even the legal status of a European citizen who forgets to register his/her presence with the local authorities within 90 days can be seen as irregular (see Chap. 3).

Due to the above-mentioned complex circumstances, many people with foreign backgrounds in Finland do not know, or even understand, whether they are undocumented migrants or not, or whether they are legitimately registered in the country. In addition, many former and current asylum seekers subjectively consider themselves to be refugees, despite their legal status. Usually, by that, these people mean that they had to leave their home and country of origin due to external reasons. Such reasons are sometimes in accordance with the United Nations’ definition of a refugee (such as escaping war or persecution; see Chap. 3 and United Nations 1951). At other times, this subjective feeling of being a refugee refers to the departure from one’s country of origin due to economic hardship, thus not meeting the international criteria of a refugee. In addition, for many, already having applied for asylum means defining oneself as a refugee, and this subjective definition is correct regardless of the authorities’ decisions: in general, both asylum seekers and ‘failed asylum seekers define themselves, their identities and actions in their own terms’ (Puumala 2012: 27).

An additional complexity derived from the term ‘undocumented migrant’. Even if we excluded from the definition the EU citizens who, for various reasons, had not registered their presence with the local authorities, many of those who do not have the legal right to stay in Finland, but who remain in Finland—colloquially defined as ‘undocumented’ or ‘paperless’ migrants—have previously been documented in various ways: they have personal identification documents and possess many official papers and other documents. For many of them, it is difficult to understand how, in such a situation, they can be defined as ‘undocumented’ or ‘paperless’. Furthermore, to ask in a survey whether a person is an ‘illegal immigrant’ (which is what they are usually called by the migration authorities and the police; see Poliisihallitus 2017; Sisäministeriö 2016) would be offensive for many respondents, because none of them consider themselves to be illegal; instead, they are individuals with genuine rights to migrate (Peers 2015; Savino 2016).

Such an insoluble conceptual issue was also evident in the responses to our surveys. We did not expect to receive universally accurate answers if we directly asked the respondent whether he/she was an asylum seeker or undocumented migrant. As discussed previously, not all respondents know their status and are aware of what such a status means. In fact, by subjectively claiming to be a ‘refugee’, one claims to have permission to stay in the country and, potentially, to be assisted in staying. Instead, we used the survey to ask a series of questions, which we then cross-checked for consistency: whether the respondent had applied for asylum in Finland (yes/no/I don’t know); whether he/she had received a positive or negative decision (yes/no/I don’t know); whether, in the case of a negative decision, he/she had appealed or was going to appeal against it in court (yes/no/I don’t know); and how many negative decisions he/she had received. Elsewhere in the questionnaire, we also asked whether the respondent had stayed in an asylum seeker reception centre in Finland and when (if) the financial support and services for his/her asylum were terminated, as well as the reasons that he/she came to Finland (to work, to search for asylum, to meet friends, etc.). We also asked whether the person had applied for a residence permit and whether he/she had received a positive or negative answer.

These questions potentially enabled us to cross-check and deduce whether the respondent had the legal right to stay in Finland or not. This was also a tool to exclude from the analysis those respondents who were not, in fact, undocumented migrants, even if they might have thought so or claimed to have the right to stay in Finland (for example, like some of the asylum seekers for whom that was no longer true). As a result, we excluded respondents who replied that they had a residence permit or asylum (and which, according to other answers, seemed to be the case); those who replied that they had only received one negative decision from Migri and that they were waiting for a decision on an Administrative Court appeal (since they probably had the right to remain in Finland, because they knew about the deadline to submit the appeal to enable them to remain in Finland); and those who declared that they were asylum seekers and still received the reception centres’ services. We also cross-checked whether their responses were logical (i.e. they did not by mistake, or through wishful thinking, mention that they had asylum or a residence permit in Finland, but that they were still going through the process). Sometimes undocumented migrants responded that they had asylum or a residence permit in the hope that such an answer would actually confer that status.

Through such careful cross-checking, we came to the conclusion that, of 165 respondents who answered the survey more or less completely, 100 (61%) could be defined as undocumented migrants. Of those 65 respondents whom we excluded, 7 (11%) were still going through the asylum process (usually between court decisions, or appealing to a court, or presenting a subsequent asylum application) or asking for both asylum and a residence permit at the same time; 46 (71%) had received residence permits with or without asylum (thus they were no longer undocumented migrants); and the status of 12 (18%) respondents was uncertain.

Ultimately, we obtained a sample of 100 undocumented migrants, of whom 45% responded on paper and 55% online (Table 2.1); in general, of the younger (less than 30 years old) undocumented migrants, many more responded online (64%) than on paper (36%). Of the respondents with higher education levels (who had studied at a university or received a university degree), many more (64%) answered online than on paper (36%). Of the older respondents (50 years and older), many more answered on paper (75%) than online (25%). Regarding the respondents’ ethnic backgrounds or gender, no major differences were found between those who answered on paper and online, but the sample was too small to inspect that aspect in detail; however, we surmised that conducting a survey for undocumented migrants online would attract younger adults with higher education levels in large numbers compared to the entire undocumented migrant sample. This resonated well with earlier findings showing that young adult asylum-related migrants proportionally use the internet and social media more often than older asylum-related migrants (Merisalo and Jauhiainen 2020a, b; see also Chap. 6); by contrast, younger undocumented migrants are more reluctant to answer on paper. For a survey regarding undocumented migrants, we thus chose to use paper and online questionnaires simultaneously.

Table 2.1 Distribution of respondents who answered the paper and online surveys

The next issue we considered was whether the final sample was representative of the total population of undocumented migrants in Finland. Again, this was a difficult task, because there is no precise statistical information about undocumented migrants and their numbers, and no earlier comprehensive studies about them as a population. To determine the representativeness of our final sample, we therefore had to estimate the composition of undocumented migrants, such as their numbers and demographic and ethnic backgrounds. For this, we used our interviews with the experts and workers dealing with undocumented migrants and our 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork among undocumented migrants, which enabled us to meet many undocumented migrants personally.

As we discussed in Chap. 1, there has been no reliable or systematic counting of undocumented migrants in Finland. Among the many kinds of undocumented migrants, however, the common factor is that they do not have a legal right to reside in Finland. In Finland, the majority of undocumented migrants are former asylum seekers, but there are also (fewer) people who came to Finland without legal permission or who came to the country with no intention of being involved in the asylum process. In addition, there are students and employees whose residence permits have expired, employees or tourists who never applied for a visa or residence permit, and spouses who have not applied for residence permits or whose right to stay in Finland has expired due to family status changes (such as divorce; see Sect. 3.3 for details). In addition, as mentioned, EU citizens who fail to register their presence with the local authorities within 90 days belong to yet another category and are normally not referred to as undocumented migrants.

Our study focused on undocumented migrants who were former asylum seekers and those who never applied for asylum, but came to Finland for reasons similar to those of the asylum seekers (i.e. fleeing their country of origin due to personal, political, or economic insecurity). An important mean to estimate their number and composition was to analyse the backgrounds of asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, expelled asylum seekers, voluntarily returned asylum seekers, and those who ‘disappeared’ from the asylum process (e.g. the authorities did not know whether they had left Finland), as well as of those undocumented migrants who were tracked by the border guards or detained by the police. Further intensive field research and observations, as well as talks with undocumented migrants and related experts, provided additional background information for estimation.

Our estimate was that, at the beginning of 2019, there were about 4500 undocumented migrants in Finland (3500–4500 people, depending on who was counted; e.g. whether overstaying EU citizens in Finland were included in the number, such as Roma from Bulgaria and Romania or Estonians staying longer in Finland for family or employment reasons). The total composition of undocumented migrants in Finland is discussed in detail in Sect. 3.2. As mentioned, earlier analyses indicated that, compared with many Western European countries, the number and proportion of the visa overstaying population in Finland is small (Könönen 2020).

The gender, age, and ethnic composition of asylum-related undocumented migrants required the collection of such details from asylum applications, rejected applications, court decisions, voluntary repatriations, and forced deportations of these migrants; information from long-term mediators and activists dealing with undocumented migrants in Finland; and careful personal field observations and talks with the undocumented migrants themselves. Based on these efforts, we estimated that, in Finland in 2018, there were around 3000–4000 asylum-related undocumented migrants (i.e. asylum seekers who had received final rejections and those who came irregularly to Finland due to asylum-related reasons, but never entered the asylum process). Of those, about 80–90% were male and about 10–20% female. Regarding their age profiles, about 12% were less than 18 years old and a few (less than 2%) were at least 60 years old, so about 86% were 18–59 years old. An overwhelmingly large group were 20–35-year-old non-deportable Iraqis. Of the survey respondents, 91% were male and 9% were female; 14% were less than 18 years old, 85% were 18–59 years old, and 1% was at least 60 years old. There seemed to be a slight underrepresentation of female and elderly respondents in the survey sample. As our long-term field research indicated, elderly undocumented migrants spend less time in public spaces, fewer of them use the internet (making it impossible for them to answer online), and some are illiterate; however, there are generally very few elderly undocumented migrants.

It is possible to estimate the ethnic composition of undocumented migrants in Finland, although it requires careful scrutiny of asylum process documentation and information about entries into Finland without the authorities’ consent. It is important to analyse the detailed backgrounds of asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, expelled asylum seekers, and similar. In 2015–2020, asylum seekers came from 131 countries (Migri 2018: 3). Based on this general data from Migri, our estimate was that, in 2015–2017, people from approximately 125 countries received negative decisions on their asylum applications. In total, Migri made 63,700 decisions on asylum applications in Finland and granted asylum or residence permits to about 21,200 (33%) of the applicants (Jauhiainen et al. 2018: 31; Migri 2021); however, there is no comprehensive information on whether these people who received negative decisions left Finland or whether those who left Finland (either voluntarily or through deportation) ever returned illegally to Finland. During our study, we found examples of undocumented migrants in Finland who had earlier been removed from Finland. Some had also voluntarily left Finland after receiving a negative asylum decision but, nevertheless, returned to Finland.

It is not possible, however, to derive the number of undocumented migrants directly from the number of negative asylum decisions. Firstly, there are no available statistics regarding how many individual asylum seekers there are or have been in Finland. Migri counts only asylum applications, but not the actual number of asylum seekers. One application (and decision) applies to at least one person, but there can also be group applications; for example, a family applying for asylum on the same application. In addition, one person can make—as our study also illustrated—several asylum applications. Migri does not provide detailed statistics about those who make one or more subsequent applications. In the EU and in Eurostat, an asylum applicant refers to a person who has submitted an application for international protection, or has been included in such an application as a family member, during the reference period, and the first applicant refers to the person who lodged an application for asylum for the first time in a given member state during the reference period (Eurostat 2019). Secondly, in Finland, the courts only count the number of appeals and decisions, but not the number of people whom the court decisions apply to.

Our rough estimate was that, of the undocumented migrants (in this case, former asylum seekers and those who came to Finland or remained in Finland without the legal right to do so, under similar circumstances, but did not apply for asylum) about 60–67% were Iraqi nationals, 8–15% were from the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—mostly Morocco), 5–10% were Afghan nationals, 3–8% were from Syria, 2–5% were Somali nationals, and the remaining 6–22% (probably 10–15%) were other nationals, including many from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Among other types of irregular migrants (who were not the focus of our study and not counted in the numbers given previously), the majority were people from Asia and Europe (including Roma and other economically poor people from Romania and Bulgaria).

Of our respondents, 60% (60 respondents) were from Iraq, 11% from Morocco, 4% from Afghanistan, 4% Syria, 2% each from Iran, Niger, Somalia, and Kurdistan [disputed], respectively, and 1% each from Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Gambia, and Turkey. 6% did not specify their countries of origin. Of our survey responses, 51% (51 responses) were in Arabic, 33% in English, 7% in Finnish, 3% in Kurdish Sorani, 2% in Dari, 2% in Somali, and 1% in Farsi (however, Farsi was available only for the paper survey). The respondents rather closely represented the overall ethnic composition of undocumented migrants in Finland (in this case, former asylum seekers and those who came to Finland for similar reasons, but did not apply for asylum). The majority of undocumented migrants in Finland are Iraqi men: in our survey, 60% of all respondents.

2.3.3 Survey of Local Authorities Regarding Undocumented Migrants

We conducted two semi-structured surveys among local authorities in Finland. The objective was to obtain their views on undocumented migrants, and especially on the services and other assistance provided for them in municipalities. We also aimed to obtain information about the presence and number of undocumented migrants across Finland. National legislation and policies create the framework for services and activities to support undocumented migrants in Finland, but local authorities are the key stakeholders in operationalising them. Both surveys were short (10 short questions in the first survey; 12 short questions in the second survey) and conducted by telephone. Our research assistants helped in the collection and analysis of the material, but one of the authors (Professor Jussi S. Jauhiainen) also collected and analysed the material from both surveys.

The first telephone survey was conducted in December 2017. Because the issue of undocumented migrants was starting to appear in the public media in Finland, but there was no country-wide information about the phenomenon, we decided to gather information from all the municipalities. The survey content was neutral, and there were no consequences for the respondents or the municipalities if they claimed no undocumented migrants or made no services available for them. Furthermore, we explained that we would not mention any respondent’s or municipality’s name in the research report (see Jauhiainen et al. 2018).

In the survey, we asked whether there were any undocumented migrants in the municipality and, if yes, how many, whether anyone was helping them (including the activities of local authorities), and in what ways. Furthermore, we asked whether the local authorities experienced any challenges regarding undocumented migrants (if they had any) in the municipality. Finally, we asked who should be in charge of deciding whether and what services should be provided to undocumented migrants. At the end of the survey, we gave the respondents the opportunity to freely express their opinions on the topic.

Depending on the municipality, the questions took 5–30 min to answer. If there were no undocumented migrants in a municipality and the respondent was not particularly concerned about the issue, it took only a few minutes, but if the respondent had views on the issue, the call was longer (up to half an hour for municipalities with undocumented migrants). In cities and large towns, the respondents were usually the people responsible for immigration-related issues. In smaller towns and rural municipalities, the respondents were the mayors. To our slight surprise, every municipality responded. For the collection of this empirical material, most of the time was spent trying to reach busy municipal administrators by telephone. In addition to the writers of the related research report (see Jauhiainen et al. 2018), three research assistants helped with the calls and analysis. Finally, we received answers from all 311 municipalities in Finland (100% response rate and all municipalities answered all questions). Many municipalities wished to express their opinions and, ultimately, the few who were less willing to participate agreed to answer when they knew that almost all other municipalities had answered.

The second telephone survey was conducted in December 2018. The earlier telephone survey had indicated that, in the vast majority (around 85%) of Finnish municipalities, the local authorities or other stakeholders had no evidence of undocumented migrants; therefore, in 2018, we limited our survey to the municipalities that mentioned in 2017 that they had undocumented migrants. We also included a few additional municipalities, due to their size (over 30,000 inhabitants) or location close (30–40 km) to a large town with relatively many undocumented migrants (see Jauhiainen and Gadd 2019).

Again, we asked if there were any undocumented migrants in the municipality and, if yes, how many there were and whether their number had increased or declined during 2018. As in the earlier survey, we asked who was helping them (including the activities of local authorities) and how. We also asked if the local authorities faced any challenges regarding undocumented migrants in the municipality. At the end of the survey, we gave the respondents the opportunity to freely express their opinions on the topic.

Depending on the municipality, the questions took 10–30 min to answer. If the number of undocumented migrants in the municipality was small and nothing in particular had happened, it took around 10 min to answer the questions, but in municipalities with relatively large numbers of undocumented migrants, the calls took up to half an hour if the respondents wanted to talk about the details. As in the earlier survey, in cities and large towns, the respondents were usually the people responsible for immigration-related issues; in smaller towns and rural municipalities, the respondents were again the mayors. Finally, we received answers from 42 municipalities (everyone we called responded; i.e. the response rate was again 100% and all the municipalities answered all the questions). Most municipalities viewed responding as a duty that served the public interest.

2.4 Ethnographic Participant Observation Among Undocumented Migrants

Ethnographic participant observation is a method for obtaining deeper understanding of an observed group. It is also an open-ended method in which the researcher-observer can collect much more information than he/she anticipated (Corbin and Strauss 2008; Creswell 2007). Ethnographic participant observation was a very relevant method for learning about the everyday lives of undocumented migrants. It required a long-term presence in the field to create trust and confidence among the observed people and to be able to recognise the dynamics and changes in their lives. The longer presence also increased the possibility of seeing more and diverse undocumented migrants.

The ethnographic participant observation started in April 2018 and ended in January 2019. For almost 10 months, once or twice per week, we (two researchers, one of which was Dr. Miriam Tedeschi) spent days and nights in private and public urban contexts where undocumented migrants gathered, worked, lived, and passed their free time. Being out there during the spring, summer, autumn, and winter, in different weather conditions and at different hours of the day and night, also gave us a better sense of undocumented migrants’ lived experiences in public spaces.

Most encounters took place in Helsinki. There, we frequently visited places in which we knew undocumented migrants congregated and other places in which we were informed they would be present. Less frequently, we visited new places, trying to locate new undocumented migrants; however, due to confidentiality and research ethics, we cannot give any information about these places (see Sect. 2.5).

Because we did not live in Helsinki, we had to travel by car for more than an hour to the observation sites, and the fieldwork therefore took considerably more time. In addition, we could not be there for many days in a row, but usually spent at least one full day in the field each week. Despite the difficulties, this created a useful routine, and the frequency of our presence in the field did not disturb the observed undocumented migrants. Such frequency allowed them to become familiar with us and anticipate when we would be in the field. A positive side of the necessity to return each day was that it allowed us to reflect on what we felt and had or had not seen during the day (or night).

Since our method was ethnographic participant observation (Atkinson and Hammersley 1994), we were directly present in the field and tried to mingle in the contexts we observed; however, for ethical and security reasons, we did not intervene in the lives of the undocumented migrants we observed. They knew they could talk to us and were free to decide whether to open up to us or not. In addition, during the data collection, we remained strictly in a researcher position, and avoided intervening in their lives; for example, we did not give them advice about how to reach their goals in Finland or whether these goals were realistic, but we always shared information, if requested—if it was safe to do so and would not endanger them. We let them take the initiative: if they wanted to talk, we listened, and if they wanted to remain silent, we also remained silent. Such a respectful approach meant that during hundreds of hours of field observation, we observed and heard numerous perspectives and considerations. We never took field notes when speaking with them in the field. This was a conscious methodical choice, but also created a necessity to remember the talks we had with the migrants. We memorised our discussions and their answers and wrote these down after ending the day’s work in the field. The notes were written in English. Sometimes this meant that in transcribing their comments and answers, we corrected the grammar of the conversations (i.e. our notes were not necessarily verbatim but, nevertheless, were as close as possible to the original discussion). We continuously reflected on what we saw and heard and how we thought about it.

As we stated regarding the research ethics (see Sect. 2.5), observing the actions (or non-actions) of undocumented migrants and respecting their silence was an important part of the data collection process. In this way, we were able to build trust with them, because they could see and feel that we were not rushing or importuning them. We always respected both their silence and their willingness to talk and express their feelings, moods, and beliefs, without judging or trying to change or redirect them. After a few months, we were able to talk more freely with them, thanks to the trust built from the beginning of the fieldwork (Cefaï and Amiraux 2002). We were able to conduct longitudinal fieldwork, which enabled us to identify the misinterpretations or misunderstandings we had at the beginning of the field research. Accordingly, we corrected and removed biased or incorrect data from the research. Nevertheless, we always remembered that our presence as researchers constituted an ontological power imbalance between us and them, influencing the data (Düvell et al. 2010).

We regularly met and spoke with around 70 undocumented migrants. This was roughly 5–10% of the undocumented migrants in Helsinki. A deep relationship of trust was slowly created with around 20 of them over the months. They had all received two or more negative decisions on their asylum applications (or residence permit applications, since some of them, after failing the asylum process, tried to legalise their stay via other routes, such as work or family ties) and they therefore had no legal right to reside in Finland. Almost all of them had an active fear of deportation (i.e. forced removal); thus, they had to take this into account all the time in public and private spaces. Earlier studies, for example in the UK, have revealed that many undocumented migrants prefer to avoid legalising their status, because they feardeportation (Schweitzer 2017; Waite and Lewis 2017).

Most (90%) of our observed people were 25–55-year-old men with an Iraqi background and they represented the majority of undocumented migrants in Finland (see Sect. 3.2). The majority were around 30 years old and arrived in Finland in 2015 as asylum seekers. Some spoke reasonably fluent English or Finnish, but others did not. In the latter case, the gatekeepers who facilitated our access to them and their places at the beginning of the field research, and whom they trusted, helped with the translations. After building the necessary trust, we were able to communicate using online translators or were assisted by the respondents’ English- and/or Finnish-speaking peers.

The ethnographic notes, which constituted an important part of the qualitative data, were written down after each day spent with the research participants. As a general rule, we never wrote notes in front of them, because this might have created suspicion about what we were doing and whether we might be undercover police officers or similar. As previously stated, these notes recorded our conversations with the participants; simple observations of their movements, feelings, and gestures; the places they frequented; and sometimes even comments about the weather or about newspapers or magazine articles. When it was relevant, our notes also included our self-observations. Self-observation by the researcher (Venkatesh 2013) throughout the field research guarantees that his/her views are never taken for granted, but are always questioned and re-evaluated. This also helped us to abide by ethical research principles. If we ever felt that we asked a question that made an undocumented migrant uncomfortable, this was described and reflected upon in the notes. Such questions were carefully avoided in subsequent visits or reformulated in such a way that they would not make anyone else uneasy.

2.5 Research Ethics

In studying undocumented migrants, we needed to pay particular attention to research ethics (see Atkinson et al. 2007; Atkinson 2009; Cassell 1980; Mark and Hay 2006; Miller et al. 2012; Smith 2014; TENK 2018). The safety and security of these people was imperative for us. Many of them had fled from their countries of origin, suffered during their journeys to Finland, lived in marginalised positions in their current locations, and were at risk of being removed against their will. Revealing undocumented migrants’ activities, where they congregated, and with whom they stayed in touch, could have exposed all of them to danger; therefore, only a portion of the vast knowledge we acquired during the fieldwork can be shared and made public.

In general, this research followed the guidelines established by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (TENK 2018), which align with international standards and EU data protection regulations (see European Commission 2018). These provide general rules for how to conduct research; however, the anonymity and confidentiality of undocumented migrants needed to be very carefully managed. In fact, we did not want to risk scapegoating or ‘denunciation by subjects’ peer group or wider society and enforcement actions’ (Düvell et al. 2010: 230): hence, we were particularly cautious in the data collection, analysis, and publication. Finally, given the particular sensitivity of the matter, we wanted to avoid this research being construed or read as a new form of monitoring or surveillance of vulnerable groups of people (De Genova 2002) that could endanger their practices and their already precarious everyday lives.

Nevertheless, we maintained that, to support effective and evidence-based public policymaking concerning undocumented migrants, rigorous research-based knowledge about them needs to be shared with policymakers. Objective, research-based knowledge about them and, more broadly, about the phenomenon could considerably reduce the risk of wrong, false, and inaccurate information influencing the general public and policymakers. This was particularly significant in view of irregular migration and undocumented migrants becoming politicised in the 2010s, especially by right-wing parties in Europe, including Finland. National and local authorities and policymakers, as well as NGOs and the general public, should be better informed about undocumented migrants, and this is particularly relevant in Finland, where only scarce information and knowledge about their situations is available.

The basic tenets of the research ethics underlying this study were security; privacy; respect; and sensitivity towards the feelings, beliefs, moods, ideas, actions, and practices of undocumented migrants. These principles led and directed the whole lifecycle of the data collection, analysis, and publication. These migrants are a vulnerable group, and extra care needs to be taken when conducting research about them. This led to several specific choices during the research, as follows.

We did not take photographs of undocumented migrants or the sites where they met, and we did not use any photographic or video material about them or their sites. We did not record any conversations with them, although we memorised most of them. All personal data was removed from the ethnographic notes and survey data, so that no one could be identified from them, even if this data was later checked by an external person, such as someone from an enforcement unit. The meeting places and personal details of the undocumented migrants—the details that could expose their identities—have not been, and will not be, revealed for privacy and security reasons. In many cases, the nationalities of the people making the comments written in our notes were not specified. This was done to avoid attributing specific views to particular ethnic groups, which could lead to their stigmatisation or incite xenophobic or violent behaviours towards them. Consent was always requested from them, although they did not have to sign consent forms. In addition, they were informed about the research and its purpose, which were always explicitly and thoroughly explained. The participants were free to withdraw from the research at any time. In the reporting, we used fake initials of names (if we used initials at all) to refer to the people we talked to. This also followed the norms introduced by the EU data protection laws (see European Commission2018).

Sensitivity towards the feelings, beliefs, moods, ideas, actions, and practices of these individuals was not only fundamental so as not to endanger them, but also pivotal in creating trust-based relationships. There is always an ontological power difference between researchers and the researched, especially in fieldwork studies where marginalised and otherwise vulnerable people are approached by researchers (Düvell et al. 2010). The research results could therefore be biased for a number of reasons; for example, an undocumented migrant might have felt ‘forced’ to reply to the questions posed by us, since he/she might have thought that, by replying to the questions in a specific way, he/she could gain asylum or a residence permit. Undocumented migrants might have tried to reply in a way that would ‘please’ us, because they could have been afraid of us or thought that we were undercover police officers.

These delicate issues could not be completely eliminated from the fieldwork, but we, as researchers consciously carrying out the fieldwork, soon became aware of the challenges and tried to avoid them to the greatest extent possible. In this research, these potential shortcomings were tackled via a ‘slow’ approach to the fieldwork; for example, research mediators or gatekeepers (NGOs or specific people trusted by the undocumented migrants we intended to study) were first asked to negotiate access to the undocumented migrants. This access took time, as we ourselves needed to demonstrate that we could be trusted and that no information leakage would occur. In general, even when gatekeepers were not involved in the negotiation, the dialogue with undocumented migrants was never forced. We would have stayed for days without talking to anyone, if that was necessary, so as not to scare a person or make him/her feel pressured. It also happened that, sometimes, an undocumented migrant actively initiated a conversation with us, but if he/she did not wish to talk to us, we always respected this silence.

In this research, we did not volunteer in the places we went, even though we sometimes helped with minor tasks at times, if required. We took the view that our method of study was participant observation. The majority of the undocumented migrants we saw were very vulnerable and afraid of forced removal, and suspicious over Western and unknown people hanging around them; hence, in conducting our participant observation, we were very cautious at all times, because these people were not used to researchers being interested in them. We always made it very clear that we were not community or social workers, but that we were conducting research. This point is important to mention here, because these people often explicitly asked for help. They sometimes thought that we could help them to obtain asylum or residence permits. Because this would have created a power imbalance, we had to be very clear as to what our role was and that we could not, unfortunately, help them with their asylum or residence permit applications. Obviously, we possessed knowledge about the asylum processes and the most common reasons for approval or rejection of the asylum applications; however, during the field research, our role was not to assist undocumented migrants in their attempts to remain in Finland. This was a clear methodological choice, with the aim of collecting the least biased data possible. In ethical research, the clarity and transparency of everyone’s roles, purposes, actions, and words are of the utmost importance, so as not to damage vulnerable groups or create ethically inappropriate power imbalances (European Commission2019).

This did not mean that our research could not indirectly help undocumented migrants to survive in Finland or reach their goal of remaining in Finland with permission. Conducting accurate and trustful research, and actively providing objective information for policymakers, meant that the research-based results could be used to support evidence-based policies; however, mentioning nothing about undocumented migrants’ daily activities (such as working in the grey market) would leave the topic open to speculation that could very easily be used against them. Overall, we took the standpoint that our research results should not directly harm undocumented migrants (e.g. by including information that could lead to more efficient surveillance and block or hinder their efficient survival practices in Finland).

2.6 Conclusions

In this chapter, we have discussed our research material about undocumented migrants in Finland and how we collected it, carefully following ethical principles. Our strategy was to gather, in our field research, quantitative material through surveys among undocumented migrants and local authorities, as well as qualitative material through ethnographic participant observation. We supplemented this data with supportive material, such as interviews with experts and workers dealing with undocumented migrants, and by referring to related research literature, policies and legislation, and articles in the media. We utilised triangulation to combine the survey and ethnographic observation data with other materials. Nevertheless, we could not study all undocumented migrants, which required reflection on the reliability and validity of the data that is always necessary in field studies. It was very important to consider ethical rules throughout the research process, as is always the case when conducting research about undocumented migrants.

As evidenced in this chapter, the study of undocumented migrants required us to pay particular attention to what kind of material was collected and how. Very rarely is accurate and updated data about them available, so researchers need to conduct field research as we did with our case in Finland. We have explained in detail the motivations for our data gathering and the shortcomings and challenges we encountered while conducting both the quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. Furthermore, we explained how we tried to overcome these challenges and shortcomings, in order to enhance the validity and reliability of the data. Despite all the potential risks undocumented migrants might have felt they faced by completing the survey, we obtained replies (both on paper and the online survey) from people whom we had never met. Some undocumented migrants wanted their opinions and wishes to be heard, and the empirical results are presented in Chaps. 4, 5 and 6.

The ethical guidelines for observing undocumented migrants from a researcher position also meant that we depended on what they wanted to share with us and where they wanted us to meet them. This inevitably created a certain bias in the ethnographic data, because we met those who were willing to be seen. As in all populations, undocumented migrants comprise many different kinds of people: men, women, children, adults, the elderly, illiterate people, and those with university degrees (see Chap. 4). The ones we had contact with had had many different experiences in Finland: some were working, living, and moving around without any particular concerns in downtown areas, whereas others remained hidden and changed their residences frequently. Our ethical approach meant that we could not push undocumented migrants to show us their residences in order to obtain better access to families and women who stayed much more hidden than many of the young males we usually saw and met during our field research. In addition, if they did not want to tell us about their families, or allow us to meet female undocumented migrants, we could not insist; therefore, our ethnographic data revealed little about undocumented migrant women.

To balance such bias in the ethnographic data regarding the diversity of the ethnographic observations, we conducted a survey among undocumented migrants. In addition, by using a strictly anonymous and confidential survey, we could ask more systematically about their backgrounds, their journeys to Finland, their presence in the country, and their activities and aspirations. The ethical guidelines and principles also created challenges in this respect; for example, we had to leave many interesting questions out of the survey because of the potential harm they could cause to some undocumented migrants. We could ask for more detail in the survey than in our ethnographic observations, in which we listened more and asked less. Nevertheless, we could not insist they answer all questions. Instead, we emphasised that they were free to not answer any question they did not want to answer.

In conclusion, we argue that it is fruitful to gather both broad quantitative survey data, intensive qualitative ethnographic observation data, and supportive material on undocumented migrants simultaneously and utilise mixed-methodtriangulation to explore the richness of such data. High-quality, reliable, and valid data are prerequisites for obtaining accurate results and disseminating them to a wider audience.