Visualising the migrant ‘swarm’

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which our visualisations escape us, and this issue came to a head yesterday when students in my Critical Cartography seminar at Durham alerted me to an article in the Daily Mail on a new map visualising refugee flows to Europe.

Untitled 2The interactive mapping tool, made by the Finnish firm Lucify using UNHCR data, graphically depicts asylum seekers’ origin and destination countries, how asylum-seeker flows have changed over time (from January 2012 to the present), and the net effect that asylum-seeker migrations have had on the populations of individual countries. A very helpful explanatory page on the Lucify website which details the map’s origins, its intent, its methodology, and its limits, concludes that “such a visualization does not only show the scale of the numbers, but also beautifully tells the story of what those numbers mean.”

Or does it?

When Lucify’s designers discuss data limitations they focus on the fact they were unable to plot precise routes, origin/destination points within countries, actual speed of travel (they only had arrival dates), or flows to non-European countries (migrants to non-European countries are classified as ‘refugees’ and not ‘asylum-seekers’ and the data on ‘refugees’ is not as thorough). But that only scratches the surface of what the visualisation doesn’t show. Looking at the visualisation, one gets no sense of internal displacement, conditions in the sending countries (the sending countries appear ’empty’ once the refugees have left), the experience of movement, or the actual difference that the refugee flow has made to the receiving countries’ population numbers (Germany, for instance, appears saturated by the half-million refugees who have found their way there since 2012, even though that equals just .6% of Germany’s population).

In fairness, the visualisation’s creators had a difficult task, as they tried to depict the severity of the crisis but also to put it in perspective, especially for European receiving nations. Not unlike the IBRU Arctic map that I’ve discussed elsewhere, Lucify attempts to communicate the nuanced nature of the data and its meaning through companion maps and extended notations. A secondary chart looks at the specific case of refugees from Syria (the largest sending country) and notes that while a half million Syrian refugees found their way to Europe between April 2011 and September 2015, many more — four million — have ended up in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa. Additionally, an accompanying graphic notes that if those half million Syrian refugees in Europe stood very close to each other they could fit on eight football fields. The website doesn’t explain the significance of this number but, to me at least, eight football fields seems pretty insignificant relative to the land area of Europe.

The cartographers’ good intentions notwithstanding, however, the visualisation looks to me like nothing so much as a representation of the ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’ that David Cameron famously warned about. Indeed, the Daily Mail article on the map reproduced this trope with the headline ‘Stunning interactive map shows the thousands of migrants flocking to Europe every month and how 680,000 have arrived this year alone.’ I suppose a ‘flock’ is better than a ‘swarm’ (you’d rather have a bunch of birds hovering above you than a bunch of bees!), but either way the invaders are massive, undifferentiated, and not human.

The implications of this sort of terminology are clear. Echoing the Domino Theory that prevailed during the Cold War, the force working our way must be stopped at its source, or, if not there, it must be interdicted before it works its way ‘here’. Oddly, from this perspective, Germany is set to be the saviour of an insular UK: as it ‘catches’ the swarm (and sucks its numbers up into an ever-growing vertical bar), Germany prevents those alien invaders from reaching Anglia’s shores. So long as Britain keeps the heartland in check, the rimland will remain safely at bay. Thank you, Sir Halford Mackinder!

And that raises an interesting cartographic question. Although I can’t say this for sure, the Lucify visualisation appears to use techniques and tools that more commonly are used for depicting the spread of epidemics (or, for that matter, invasive species, including ‘swarms’ of killer bees, or, perhaps invading armies). Can a map of ‘incoming’ trajectories look like anything other than an invasion? In my previous reflections on the IBRU Arctic map, I wondered to what degree the cartographic grammar of bounded shapes imparts an assumed meaning about contests over space that contradicts the intended message of the map. Could the same be said of maps depicting the diffusion of the refugee ‘epidemic’?


2 comments on “Visualising the migrant ‘swarm’

  1. […] Phil Steinberg has pointed me to a 2015 post in which he explored some of the problems with an earlier form of this […]

  2. Who are moving into the ’emptied out’ areas? Companies, interests, land/resource grabbers, weaponized ‘Rebels’ clearing out land… for whom? from where?
    Who profits?
    Only then will this picture tell a truer story.

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