​It seems so long ago by now, but the first concrete steps of initiating the Childmove project were taken at the end of 2016 when the vacancies were launched for the individual researchers who would form the research team. We knew from the very beginning that the data collection the project aimed for would be – to put it mildly – challenging. So, experience with working with migrants in vulnerable situations seemed to be and showed to be essential, and luckily we were able to create a complementary team with an interesting mixture of personal and professional backgrounds and experiences.

The first months of the project were completely dedicated to preparing our tools for data collection. Although many researchers had already documented the experiences and views, support mechanisms, agency and strengths, suffering and vulnerabilities of unaccompanied refugee minors, collecting longitudinal qualitative and quantitative data on the experiences and mental health of these youngsters during their trajectory, of course, required attention for so many details. How do you collect such data without burdening the research participant? How do you establish trust? How do you get their consent? How do you create a safe setting to talk? How do you switch between quantitative and qualitative data? How do you keep in touch with them?

Needless to say, we made dozens of versions of our data collection tools, based on extremely long discussions on how to find a balance between what we wanted to know, the insights we wanted to gain about personal, structural and situational factors impacting minors’ wellbeing; what is realistic to expect from these minors answering our questions in the challenging circumstances in which they often find themselves; and how the research or the researchers could give something back to the participants. The different experiences of all team members were extremely valuable to safeguard the feasibility of this ambitious enterprise. We also tested our tools in different ways. Yet, at some point, researchers had to go to the field and meet minors willing and able to participate – with either theirs or their caregivers’ consent – to the research project. As a previous blog-post already beautifully described, you can never be fully prepared for the first data collection.

The way the data needed to be collected required a great deal of flexibility and dedication from the researchers, which they all demonstrated day after day, month after month. Through everything that was shared amongst the team, as post-doc, and later as co-supervisor, I felt connected with the ongoing fieldwork. Yet at the same time, I could never truly understand what the team was going through, still being somewhat on the sideline. I was supporting them, but I was not confronted with their challenges, or in some cases even the burden of following a large group of minors, hearing and documenting their stories and experiences, as they were so often confronted with moments of frustration, yet also moments of joy when witnessing all of these.

I believe that for this type of research, it should be a constant concern to take care of the researcher. I recognized in the team the frequent feeling of not being able to admit how emotionally demanding the research was, especially when confronted with extremely vulnerable research participants living in very precarious situations. Because, let’s be fair and not dramatize: As researchers, we are very much privileged, maybe as supervisors even more. But that does not take away the struggle it can be to be as mobile as all your participants and collecting non-stop data for such a long period. Yet here we experienced, again day after day, month after month, as the PI of this project so beautifully wrote on this website – ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. We already had a group of reflexive and ethical researchers to start with, being very attentive to the wellbeing of the participants, yet the team created that extra dimension. The constant communication about worries and small victories, about bad luck and serendipity, about losing contact and reconnecting, and the many cases of sharing dilemmas on how to act or how to continue, is so essential. I believe the whole team is there to ‘watch each other’s back’. To be that extra sextuple pair of eyes to make sure that the wellbeing of the participants and the people in their environment, as well as the wellbeing of the researcher him/herself, is always considered. I feel really honoured to be part of this team.

​Ine Lietaert holds a PhD in Social Work (Ghent University), studying the return and reintegration processes of assisted returnees from Belgium to Georgia and Armenia. Following her PhD, she worked as a post-doc researcher within the ERC Childmove project. She currently works as an assistant professor at the United Nations University – CRIS in Bruges and at the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy