Designer Deroy Peraza’s family tried to flee the oppression and instability of Cuba a total of 10 times in the 1980s. When Peraza was five, a back-alley deal for a Panamanian visa finally granted his family a path to the United States. These days, Peraza is a principal at the design firm Hyperakt, which just launched a year-in-the-making interactive map, The Refugee Project. The visualization manages to make sense of the millions of people like Peraza who live in exile due to social or political crises over the past 40 years.
“It all started when we were invited by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to a conference in Geneva,” Peraza says in a phone interview. “What was eye-opening for us was that they’ve been around since the 1950s, and they have a budget of billions of dollars and millions of people in their care. But they weren’t using their data in a compelling narrative structure.”
The basics of the graphic are immediately grokkable: A map of bubbles shows the size of each country’s refugee population from 1975 to 2012. Hovering over each bubble releases lines extending to the countries where those refugees fled. Users can navigate through the decades to watch diasporas return home or, in countries riven by decades of conflict, continue to grow.
Peraza isn’t officially a refugee, but thousands of Cubans are. To qualify for the UNHCR’s official designation, an individual must be living outside his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution. “The story of my childhood and the story of every Cuban who lives in exile is very much the story of a population in exile,” Peraza says. “It’s about retaining a Cuban identity while not living in the country for most of our lives.”
Hyperakt reached out to designer Ekene Ijeoma, and together they’ve used the UNHCR’s data to track these displaced individuals, who may face a life of discrimination or resettlement camps. Take Mozambique, for example. On the map a small red circle lies at the center of the country in 1985, indicating the 9,000 Mozambicans living forced to flee from their homeland. A line extends out to each country where the refugees found asylum.
By 1993, Mozambique’s ring has grown to encompass the entire nation. Toggling between an absolute and relative display reveals that the now 1.1 million-person diaspora represents almost 10% of the total population.
Many designers would have stopped there, leaving users wondering what caused the massive exodus. But the team has gone a step further and annotated the graphic. A small story icon appears, detailing the country’s civil war of 1992 and remarkable amnesty that followed, which explains why almost all of the refugees returned to the country by 1994.
Hyperakt and Ijeoma spent more than 500 volunteer hours prototyping and polishing the final graphic, which uses D3 and two helper libraries, Queue and TopoJSON. Their effort shines through in little UI affordances that lead users deeper into the data. When you select 1990, for instance, five country-level stories from that year cycle through a carousel at the top. At the end of each annotation is a list of related stories, providing a longitudinal look into decades of interrelated strife.
For a graphic that documents 40 years of loss, the team could have also included refugees’ personal stories to help give a face to the numbers. “I had a lot of friends that looked at it and went straight to the year that their parents migrated here,” says Ijeoma in a phone interview. “They wanted to learn the story about the year their parents arrived and the circumstances that could have affected their move.”
Peraza says that integrating individual voices is at the top of their wishlist. “We’re kind of thinking of this as a beta release of the project,” he says. A future version might tell the stories of the asylum countries, like Lebanon, which has seen it’s population of four million swell to almost five million due the past year’s influx of Syrian refugees. Or maybe it could include the stories of economic migrants such as undocumented Mexican nationals in the U.S., or those who have been internally displaced within their own countries, neither of which appears in the UNHCR’s dataset.
For now, Peraza hopes readers will leave the project with a little more compassion and knowledge. “Goal number one is to make people aware that this is still happening,” he says.