July 30, 2014 | 3 Comments

The Refugee Project (Hyperakt & Ekene Ijeoma)

From the curators: People who flee across international borders seeking asylum (and, thus, refugee status) leave their homes and lives behind. The devastation wrought by such forced migrations due to conflict, famine, persecution, and other life-threatening circumstances has been chronicled historically through oral testimony, journalism, and photographs such as those made by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. More recently, the advent of mass- and social media has fostered a newly global awareness. Refugee crises are witnessed on television, cable, and the Internet, and the world bears witness to the multilayered violence that displaces and uproots people. The Refugee Project synthesizes data gathered by the United Nations to visually narrate the forced migrations of refugees around the world since 1975. Though the United Nations is required under international law to provide protection to those seeking asylum “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” many refugees fall outside this categorization and are not represented here. The Refugee Project highlights that UNHCR data used for this project excludes, for example, those who have been internally displaced, become refugees due to natural disaster, or who are economic migrants. In 1975, there were approximately 3.5 million documented refugees worldwide; by late 2013, that number had risen to almost 13 million. In the wake of continuing conflicts in Syria, Gaza, the Ukraine, and beyond, that number continues to grow.

Every three seconds, somewhere on this planet, a person is forced to flee his or her home. They escape war, conflict, violence, persecution, and human rights abuses. Some find a safe place inside their own country, while others need to cross international borders and become refugees. Millions of people are in flight, having left behind their homes, often suddenly, only taking with them what they could carry.

And yet, every time I spend time with refugees, whether in Pakistan, Jordan, Kenya, Iraq, Mauritania, or Ecuador, I am deeply impressed by their resilience. Despite the nightmares of the past and the challenges of living in exile, people find the courage and strength to rebuild their lives. As shown clearly by the graphics of The Refugee Project and contrary to popular belief, most of the world’s refugees flee to neighboring countries and stay in the region. Today, 86 percent of refugees live in the developing world, compared to some 70 percent a decade ago. At the onset of an emergency, refugees initially find safety and help in neighboring communities, who share the little they have with the new arrivals, while national and international aid is being mobilized.

On average, however, a refugee spends more than 17 years in exile before he or she can go back home or find another solution. The long-term presence of large numbers of refugees places an enormous strain on the limited services and resources of local communities. In many countries, refugees are not allowed to work and are confined to camps. A refugee camp is a dire place, where life stands still. UNHCR and partners strive to provide primary education to all refugee children, but the sad reality is that funding is barely enough to cover most basic, life-saving needs. Secondary and tertiary education or skills training to learn a trade remain a distant dream for many refugee children.

In 2013 alone, 2.5 million people became refugees, the highest number in a single year since the Rwandan genocide. During that same year, only 414,000 refugees were able to return home. New conflicts erupt and humanitarian crises multiply, while the existing wars remain unresolved. Peace is dangerously in deficit these days and human suffering is immense. It is crucial for the world to overcome its differences and find political solutions that can prevent and halt conflict. Without this, the human cost of war will continue to grow.


While the origins of the sentiment are contested, it's true that the death of one person is a tragedy while the death of millions risks becoming a statistic. Does the visualization of big data regarding forced displacement help us comprehend this particular type of violence, or increase our apathy?

  1. December 30, 2014, 11:10 pm

    Clay Rhoads

    Yes, the visualization of the data regarding forced displacement does help the general public comprehend of the scope of the problem. But, big data alone may not provoke sympathy for the victims the way photography and journalism can. In this case, it is important to see the forest and the trees.

  2. January 5, 2015, 2:28 pm

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  3. January 5, 2015, 11:11 pm


    I do believe that The Refugee Project in question is a great and necessary effort that helps people understand the volume and timeline of the forced displacement crisis in the last few decades. It can in fact be viewed as a thorough horizontal survey of this specific type of violence that dips its toes occasionally into the different historical events that led to or perhaps more accurately are related to forced migration. However, we must not perceive this type of representation (that is data visualization be it interactive or not) as a full and comprehensive report on the issue. It is by no means a final image that helps us understand the atrocity and complexities of the kind of life refugees live around the world, nor does it alternatively go as far as increasing our apathy. It rather plays a role in-between as a mere quantitative visual that acts as a trigger to the curious mind to further look into the issue it is representing, or perhaps even into a specific case of forced displacement.

    In this regards I feel it is crucial to ask oneself how is design – the socially engaged type of course – able to complement and achieve what data visualization is not able to accomplish in representing this type of social and humanitarian injustice, and is it able to pose questions beyond the ones photography and journalism are already covering?