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‘This map cries out: we are being threatened’

Datum bericht: 7 februari 2020

A map is never neutral, claims Henk van Houtum, Professor of Political Geography and Geopolitics at Radboud University. On the contrary, every map tells a story, and this includes the choices that the cartographer has made. “And so, you should ask yourself: Which story is being told? Who is the author? What is not being said? And what is the other story that the map could tell?” Van Houtum outlines how we can be misled by maps and how we can read them more effectively.

“A map is an image of the world, but it also includes a world view,” begins Henk van Houtum. A cartographer collects, categorises, simplifies and projects selective information and does this with a specific purpose. This is not a problem in itself, but it also means that a map can never be neutral and is inherently value-loaded, and this is something which is often easily forgotten. One map that clearly reflects this is the prominent map made by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (see below), which maps out undocumented migration to the European Union (EU).

Map showing nationalities and migration trends of undocumented migrants to the EU in the second quarter of 2015.

This map shows the nationalities and migration trends of undocumented migrants to the EU in the second quarter of 2015. Source: Frontex.

In their recently published article ‘The Migration Map Trap’, Van Houtum and his colleague Rodrigo Bueno Lacy examined this map more closely. Van Houtum: “In many cases, this map has been wholeheartedly adopted by the media, the political arena and in policy analyses. Everything on this map cries out that the EU is forced to deal with a major ‘illegal invasion’. Hence, the implicit value-loaded message of this scientifically most problematic map is that the EU is being severely threatened and that the EU has to defend itself against invaders who are coming from far and wide.”

People are not arrows

The first thing that stands out on the Frontex map are the arrows, which are both thick and red. Where have we seen this before? On a military map, where an invasion is indicated by an arrow pointing towards a country. “I can understand this in the case of war,” says Van Houtum, “but in the case of migration? Migrants are not arrows, on the contrary, they are the people who are often running away from a war.”

The size of the arrows is also completely out of proportion. “The figures do not justify the thickness of these arrows at all. The focus here is on a few hundred thousand people, but some arrows are even larger than an entire country with tens of millions of inhabitants. I mean, every year, eighty million tourists make their way to France: How big would these arrows then be?”

The use of the colour red is also problematic. In a wide variety of cultures, red is a colour that represents fear, danger and stress. Hence, the red arrows depict a tremendous threat. And in contrast to the red arrows, the EU is shown in the background in a soothing baby-blue colour. “The EU is consequently portrayed as the innocent focal point versus the threatening alternative, the migrants who are supposedly heading towards the EU from anywhere and everywhere. What’s more, this subsequently gives the impression that their migration has nothing to do with the EU’s foreign policy.” This is a representation of reality that is both historically and geographically incorrect.

Lastly, the linear arrows only focus on one single movement, from point A to point B. “But undocumented migration almost never forms a straight line,” emphasises Van Houtum. “At best, it’s a zigzag path. A little movement here, some waiting there, and much uncertainty overall about the opportunities for following one’s path. Plus, there is also a significant amount of emigration, but this movement isn’t shown either.”

Propaganda vs counter-mapping

In short, the story that is told by this map complies with a Eurosceptic rhetoric, where there is also talk of floods, tsunamis and invasions. “But if an official European map is using the same propagandistic visual language as Eurosceptic, anti-immigration parties, then the EU seriously needs to ask itself what it is doing,” says Van Houtum. In order to visually tell other stories on migration then only this inherently alarmist propaganda, alternative maps are currently being developed by cartographers and also by designers and the migrants themselves.

Alternative forms of representation include deep mapping. These are maps that focus on the stories of the travellers and in particular their movements and connections, instead of focusing on the political division of states. A deep map accentuates the emotions, identity and fears that are associated with a person’s personal history. The ‘Stories Behind a Line’ project by Federica Fragapane and Alex Piacentini is an example of a detailed narrative of six migrants. Another example is the ‘We Are Not Refugees, We Are Human’ map (see below), in which a Syrian refugee mapped out his journey from Syria to France.

Deep map in which Syrian fugitive Mustafa mapped out his journey from Syria to France.

Example of a ‘deep map’ in which Syrian fugitive Mustafa mapped out his journey from Syria to France. Source: ‘Atlas des migrants en Europe: Approches critiques des politiques migratoires.’

Another alternative form of cartography that is being developed is mobile mapping, in which movement can be accentuated. This is primarily a digital method that involves a mobile map rather than a stationary map. “This type of map can also be printed, for example, by displaying several adjacent stills. In fact, all maps are stills, but this is never mentioned.” An example of a mobile map is the ‘Migration Trail’ project, which involves following characters in real time en route to the EU.

The third option is counter-mapping. This form of cartography focuses on power: Which power lies within a map and what is the map not telling us? Counter-maps produce a ‘counter-narrative’, for example, by giving a voice to migrants, as was the case in ‘Drifting Images, Liquid Traces’ by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, in which a boat containing 72 refugees was followed for fourteen days. Another example is a counter-map of a surveilled city. “I have occasionally asked students to make a map of the walking routes in the Nijmegen city centre where walkers remain unseen by surveillance cameras. Interestingly, the latter appears rather difficult to achieve.”

‘counter-map’ as a counter-narrative to the Frontex map, ‘Dying at the Gates of Europe’.

Example of a ‘counter-map’ as a counter-narrative to the Frontex map, ‘Dying at the Gates of Europe’ by Philippe Rekacewicz. Source: Le Monde diplomatique.

Reading maps

Van Houtum compares the reading of maps with the reading of texts. “A map also needs to be read. Let’s look at the Frontex map again, which uses the European nation states as a starting point. There’s no mention of the fact that it is the refugee’s own visa restrictions that hinders regular travel to the EU, and in most cases they can only make the extremely dangerous, undocumented journey to the EU either by boat or via human trafficking before they’re even able to apply for asylum at all. So, the EU border policy itself gives rise to the hazardous, irregular nature of this migration, not the other way around,” explains Van Houtum.

“We are taught to read critically, but we still look at maps as if they were an objective representation of reality. And it is precisely within the parameters of the migration debate, where a great deal of tension exists between fact and fiction, that we would do well to present alternative maps that are more honest. It would broaden our view of the world. Literally.”

Image (top) cut out from Frontex-map nationalities and migration trends of undocumented migrants to the EU in the second quarter of 2015.