Abandoned at sea: The desperate journeys of Rohingya refugees

Country/area: Singapore

Organisation: Kontinentalist

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 8 Dec 2020

Credit: Zafirah Zein, Loh Pei Ying, Siti Aishah, Joceline Kuswanto, Griselda Gabriele

Project description:

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) collaborated with us to produce a long-form, visual story on Rohingya refugees who risk their lives crossing the Andaman Sea in search of refuge in Southeast Asia. Through the use of striking maps, gorgeous illustrations, and original audio clips, Kontinentalist retells the Rohingya refugee crisis story in an innovative format that combines the best elements of storytelling and data visualisation. Taking immersive and empathetic storytelling to a new level for an indescribably important cause, this is a story that will move readers to learn more about and support one of Asia’s long persecuted minorities.



Impact reached:

The Rohingya humanitarian crisis has sporadically gained media attention over the decade due to the crises at sea, but in general the issue has been severely underreported in Southeast Asia. While regional NGOs, refugee advocates and individuals have made meaningful contributions to the refugee cause, we wanted to spread a deeper awareness of the Rohingya’s plight by producing an impactful piece that would spur readers in the region to take further action. One of the key messages that we wanted to send across is that Rohingya refugees need greater protection from the Association of Southeast Aian Nations (ASEAN) community, especially as the impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affect refugees. One of the ways in which ASEAN countries can relieve their plight is by ensuring their safe disembarkation and offer refugees opportunities for asylum in a time where border closures and public health restrictions have led to heightened fear and insecurity. 

The story was shared widely on social media, and received an overwhelming response on UNCHR’S global Instagram page. It also received good feedback from NGOs working on refugee and humanitarian issues, as well as regional media outfits who have approached us with ideas for future collaboration.


Techniques/technologies used:

Datasets and reports were provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) but further research was done to supplement the text and support the data visualisations. Illustrations were done with Procreate and Adobe Photoshop.

The base map was designed in-house using Mapbox GL JS. We overlaid the story text over the map using Scrollama which triggers the map to zoom in or out, and changing the mapview on scroll. Using Turf JS, we animated one of the many journeys taken by a Rohingya refugee. We coded the geojson points into the map as coloured circles with diameters that were proportional to our numerical dataset. These coloured circles were linked to a custom timelapse ui component. This controls when the circles appear on the map according to the ticks on the timelapse ui component.


What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of the project was translating the data into powerful and effective data visualisations that were also sensitive to the political climate and the UNHCR’s relationship with governments in the region. When we first brainstormed the storyboard, we had big ideas of how we could relay the data and information, but we had to be mindful of how we portrayed the movement of Rohingya refugees and the varied governmental response to the crisis. We were also careful not to produce a visualisation that could be manipulated or taken out of context to feed anti-refugee/anti-immigrant sentiment in the region. 

The technical and academic language employed in UNHCR reports and our other research sources further proved to be a challenge as we wanted the story to be as personal, humane and accessible as possible. In this story, original audio interviews and secondary anecdotes with refugee surviors played an important role in inspiring the language and guiding the overall narrative and flow of the story.  

What can others learn from this project?

With the right combination of visualisation and language tools, journalists can tell both data-driven and human-centric stories that can rouse emotion and engender social change. Maps, for example, are an incredibly compelling way to take readers on a journey. In this story, the map was used to relay the experiences of the Rohingya before and during the maritime journey and showed the scale of the tragedies at sea over a certain time period. 

Project links: