Beyond “Boat People”: What Refugee Images Fail to Convey

Posted by Paul Vernon

The story of a refugee cannot be reduced to a single photo, no more than a photo of you and me encompasses all that we are. This is not to deny the powerful emotion these photos evoke or the urgency that they often symbolically represent. Yet although the photos may be powerful they obscure as much as they reveal.


As the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea carries on into another week and thousands still remain trapped at sea, images of “boat people” have become ubiquitous in the coverage by the international media. However, in the eyes of the camera, in the raw images of the bodies of “boat people,” the individual stories and histories fade away into the distance. All that remains is a collective mass, a “sea of humanity” adrift at sea. There is seemingly no context required, nothing more that needs to be said about these images worth a thousand words.


As so often happens when we think of refugees and see these photos, we lose sight of the particular histories, hopes, and dreams that each refugee carries with them in their journey away from home. We fail to see the connections that link those bodies over there with our communities over here. And when we forget that human connection and fail to recognize the intersections between the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of our lives and those of the people on camera the outcome is so often tragic.

We reach a point when we choose to push away rather than take in a boat full of Rohingya in need of humanitarian aid, when instead of offering their support neighboring governments insist on playing a “a three-way game of human ping pong” and unity comes by all of us saying “They are not welcome here.”

The rejection and the abandonment of the Rohingya, however, is far more than just a tragedy to be observed and saddened by. It is a call to action, one that shifts onto all of us over here the responsibility to embrace and welcome those rejected over there. For when we stop seeing refugees as mere bodies on boats, what we will find are stories of resilience, individuals whose goals and dreams are not different from you and I, and lives that will be rebuilt long after the photographers go away and the boats have reached shore.

We find people like Eva Bonilla, a young woman forcibly displaced from her home in Colombia due to armed conflict and violence and forced to live in a makeshift bamboo shelter with no job and seemingly abandoned by all. But after receiving training and support from an RIJ funded project, Eva became the legal representative of her local women’s association and was able to start a small business selling sandals and shoes.

We find voices like that of Hellen Icoroit, a 54 year old widow who escaped captivity by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and who asks, “After all what do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?” Hellen and her family were one of two hundred families RIJ supported with resettlement kits in 2009 that helped them return back to their home village for the first time in twenty five years.

Eva and Hellen’s stories remind us that refugees are so much more than the silent victims they can be portrayed as in the photographs we see in the news and underscore the incredible contribution refugees can make when we welcome them into our communities and give them our support. At Refugees International Japan we stand in solidarity with the Rohingya and all refugees around the world through funding projects that rebuild lives and restore dignity for those forcibly displaced from home.

To learn more about the Rohingya the following links are a great place to start:

To learn more about RIJ and find out what you can do to help you can go to:



  1. Hi. I had proposed a online petition “To Malaysia government: Please provide a better protection to Rohingya Refugees” and use the photo from your post. I’ve write the source of the picture on the petition. Please let me know if the photo is not suitable for me to use. You can reach me at


    1. Dear Ying CW – This photo was taken from the website and was not approved. I think it came from a newspaper article so you may encounter problems using it for a petition. Using photos without permission can bring a lot of legal problems.

  2. sorry, my petition title change to Please provide a better protection to Myanmar and Bengal Refugees (amended edition)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s