Mapping 40 years of global refugee migrations


The UNHCR - the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - works with 35 million displaced people in 126 countries. Their 8,000 person staff collects enormous amounts of data on refugee displacements, and publish it publicly. However, the organization has struggled to find meaningful ways to communicate and visualize their data and reveal the stories behind the numbers. Faced with these challenges, the UNHCR invited Hyperakt to Geneva to conduct workshops, presentations and discussions on data visualization.


Inspired by UNHCR’s work, Hyperakt took on the challenge of creating a compelling narrative from 40 years of their refugee data. Working with technologist Ekene Ijeoma, we created an interactive experience that illuminates where and when refugees emigrate, as well as the complex stories of political, social and economic turmoil behind each displacement. By adding historical context to the shifting patterns of forced migration, we highlight the impact each crisis has on people’s lives.


The Refugee Project was selected for MoMA’s Design and Violence exhibition, where it was written about by the UNHCR’s High Comissioner, António Guterres. It was selected for the Design Museum (London) Designs of the Year 2015 Exhibition. The piece was featured in the New Americans exhibition at the Annenberg Photospace in Los Angeles and in an exhibition called Information+ at Concourse Gallery in Vancouver. Stamen Design featured it as part of the Mapmaker Manifesto installation at the 2014 Istanbul Design Biennial. It was published across the globe in Le Monde, El Pais, Corriere della Sera, designboom, Domus and The Atlantic, who called it “an example of how graphic designers are turning their attention to framing data that stimulates action.” The project was awarded a Gold Medal for Interactive at the 2014 Information is Beautiful Awards and a Silver Medal at the prestigious Malofiej 22 Infographic Awards. The Refugee Project has accrued over 5 million page views since launching in January 2014, and has been shared on Twitter to millions of viewers by global humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam International, UN Global Pulse and Amnesty International.

Finding relevant and important trends

We began with 150,232 rows of data from 1975 to 2013. The data provided the total number of refugees seeking asylum in each country and, conversely, the number of refugees originating from each country in any given year. From this raw data, we worked with our technologist to create a beta application to test different ways to map patterns in the data.

Highlighting the essential

Working iteratively, we created an interface that provided a global overview of refugee migrations, and also highlighted key information. We kept the UI simple, composed of three variables: a world map, an information dashboard and heat map timeline, and headlines linking to stories for each year.

Refugee population over time

Red circles centered on each country visualize the total number of refugees originating from that country in each given year. These circles grow and shrink over time as conflict begins and subsides.

The UNHCR's numbers show the total number of refugees living abroad each year, rather than those who fled in that particular year. This means that some seemingly stable countries might show large numbers of refugees years after the events that prompted their flight, as these populations are still living as refugees in asylum countries. Shrinking circles can be attributed to a number of factors, including refugee deaths, refugees returning to their home country or naturalization in asylum countries.

Country of origin vs. country of asylum

Toggling the Origin/Destination button on the information dashboard switches the display between origin mode (red circles) and asylum mode (blue circles). The data shifts correspondingly from reflecting the origin countries of refugees to the countries where refugees have sought asylum.

Tracing flight paths

Radiating lines between countries show where refugees have sought asylum. We color-coded each line to reflect the direction of movement. For example, the movement of 3 Zimbabwean refugees to the UK in 1990 is depicted with a line between the two countries that is red at the African end and blue at the other.

Refugees as a percentage of population

Toggling to the percentage view button shows the number of refugees as a percentage of their origin country's population. This highlights the relative impact of instability on smaller nations. For example, some small but unstable countries, like Nicaragua in the 1980s, produced only a few refugees compared with larger unstable nations like DR Congo, but those refugees represented a comparatively greater fraction of the total population, indicating a more profound social collapse.

Why is someone forced to flee?

Each wave of refugees reflects a wave of repression, violence or chaos in their home countries. We researched and wrote 83 original stories to explain the political and social context behind major refugee movements. We wrote one or more headlines for each year, highlighting some of the key world events in that year impacting refugee crises. Stories are linked between related crises in neighboring countries or between years in a single country to provide a more complete picture of history.

Adapting to mobile

We reduced the user interface to its core essentials for mobile devices. For each year, we highlighted the top three countries of origin for refugees, and the top three countries of asylum. Easy-to-follow links to headlines and accompanying stories allow quick access to the context for these numbers.