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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Forced Displacement: Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice


As of this writing, more than 65 million people around the world have been displaced, representing the highest number since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, began its reporting more than fifty years ago. This number includes 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. To comprehend the scale of this number, it is useful to understand that 1 person in 100 worldwide has been displaced from their home, and if these 65 million people were a nation unto themselves, they would make up the twenty-first largest in the world. Another way to understand the gravity of the current situation is to consider that 34,000 people per day — an average of 24 people every minute — are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution. Young people are particularly impacted: Some 94,400 unaccompanied or separated children, representing 78 countries, applied for asylum in 2015. Today, more than half (54 percent) of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Worldwide, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the largest numbers of these refugees.

But what does it mean to be a refugee or displaced person? The term “refugee” was given a precise legal definition in 1951. It was defined by the newly organized (in 1950) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. This definition has been refined over time. (See Activity 2.) A refugee is not the same as an internally displaced person (IDP). Refugees cross an international border; IDPs have been forced to leave their home, but have not crossed a border and, therefore, remain in their own country.

Grade Level

  • High School

Classroom Connections

  • Geography
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • World History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • Forced displacement and refugees
  • Social justice and the rights and needs of refugees
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Video Connection

The increasing numbers of refugees are the focus of intense political rhetoric and media attention. Their plight has renewed discussions about the following issues:

  • the meaning of nationhood, culture, and citizenship;
  • the definition of human rights;
  • the legal and fiscal responsibilities of nation-states; and,
  • the ethics of national and regional efforts at control of refugees.

Meanwhile, internally displaced persons (IDPs), who do not fit the legal definition of refugee because they have not left their homeland, pose another set of challenges to international law and to the mandates of humanitarian organizations.

The scale and complexity of the contemporary refugee crisis has also raised new ethical and human rights questions such as: What are the rights of the deceased? Thousands perish on their journey for safe refuge, and their relatives and friends, as well as the international community, call for the need for a registry of the dead, and the care and rights of those orphaned by these tragedies.

Key Learning Targets

  • Be able to explain the meaning of displacement, the contributing causes that have historically created displaced people, and the differences between the major categories of displaced people.
  • Be able to provide examples of the different roles individuals, governments, and international entities play in advocating for and securing the rights of displaced persons.
  • Be able to discuss the effects of displacement and the ways in which displaced persons create community in both new regions and temporary settings.
  • Be able to identify, compare, and contrast visual themes and pictorial techniques in photographic media that function to direct or shape interpretation.
  • Be able to explain how displaced people use media and new technology to navigate their ways around international borders.

Essential Questions

  • What does citizenship ensure?
  • Who are “displaced persons”?
  • Why does forced displacement or statelessness occur?
  • What roles do individuals, governments, and international entities have in protecting and securing the rights of displaced persons?
  • What are the repercussions of the loss of coherent community and culture?
  • What are the effects of protracted displacement on women and children?
  • What roles do media and photography play in shaping public perception and opinions?

Prerequisite Knowledge

Before viewing the photos and engaging in the activities, students should:

  • Understand that people have been displaced from their homelands and communities since the beginning of history.
  • Be aware of the basic geography and major wars and conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
  • Know that wars and conflicts caused borders to change, that geopolitical forces shaped nations, and that people were displaced as a result.


  • Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge
    • High School
      U.S. History
  • Advocating and Securing the Rights of Displaced Persons: The Roles of Governments, International Groups, and Individuals
    • High School
      Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History, World History
  • For What Reasons Are People Displaced?
    • High School
      Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History, World History
  • Examining Common Attitudes and Perceptions of Refugees Through Photographs
    • High School
      Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History, World History
  • Using Media to Portray the Experiences and Perspectives of Displaced People
    • High School
      Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History, World History


National History Standards (NCHS)

World History Era 6
The Emergence of the First Global Age, 1450–1770

  • Standard 5: Transformations in Asian societies in the era of European expansion

World History Era 7
An Age of Revolutions, 1750–1914

  • Standard 1: The causes and consequences of political revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
  • Standard 3: The transformation of Eurasian societies in an era of global trade and rising European power, 1750–1870
  • Standard 4: Patterns of nationalism, state-building, and social reform in Europe and the Americas, 1830–1914

World History Era 8
A Half-Century of Crisis and Achievement, 1900–1945

  • Standard 2: The causes and global consequences of World War I
  • Standard 4: The causes and global consequences of World War II

World History Era 9
The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes

  • Standard 2: The search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world
  • Standard 3: Major global trends since World War II

Historical Thinking Standard 2: Historical Comprehension

Historical Thinking Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Historical Thinking Standard 5: Historical Issues

Common Core

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 and RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.7: Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.5: Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS RL.9-10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.

CCSS W.9-10.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

References and Further Readings

References and Further Readings

Liz Alderman, “Aid and Attention Dwindling, Migrant Crisis Intensifies in Greece,” The New York Times, August 13, 2016.

Eleanor Alpert, “The Rohingya Migrant Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounders, December 9, 2016.

Colin Bundy, “Migrants, refugees, history and precedents,” Forced Migration Review 51, January 2016.

Dawn Chatty and Troy Sternberg, “Climate effects on nomadic pastoralist societies,” Forced Migration Review 49, May 2015.

John H. Cushman, Jr. “Haitians Face Perils of Sea To Reach U.S.,” The New York Times, February 11, 1992.

Theodora Dragostinova, “Refugees or Immigrants? The Migration Crisis in Europe in Historical Perspective,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, 9 no. 4, January 2016.

Steve Erklander, “Aid Groups Seek Ways to Handle Tide of Refugees From Indochina,” The New York Times, June 11, 1989.

Marina Koren Esri, “Where Are the 50 Most Populous Refugee Camps?,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 19, 2013, (accessed November 4, 2016).

María José Fernández, “Refugees, climate change and international law,” Forced Migration Review 49, May 2015.

Greg Grandin, “Ending Colombia’s 100-Year War,” The Nation, October 27, 2015.

Louise Højen, “Colombia’s ‘Invisible Crisis‘: Internally Displaced Persons,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, February 2, 2015, (accessed October 28, 2016).

Ben Hubbard, “Lesbos Turns From Vacation Island to ‘Main Point of Entry’ for Migrants,” The New York Times, September 16, 2015.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, GRID 2016: Global Report on Internal Displacement.

John Kifner, “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview,” The New York Times: Times Topics (accessed November 8, 2016).

Jenny Kitzinger, Edited by Eoin Devereux. “Framing and Frame Analysis,” Media Studies: Key Issues and Debates (London; Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2007).

Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho, Laura Madokoro, and Glen Peterson, “Refugees, Displacement and Forced Migration in Asia: Charting an Inclusive Research Agenda,” Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series, no. 236, April 2015.

Danielle Robinson, “Engaging with innovation among refugees and IDPs,” Forced Migration Review 53, October 2016.

Corinne Segal, “Stranded in a refugee camp, this Syrian photographer teaches budding artists,” PBS NewsHour, June 11, 2016 (accessed October 30, 2016).

William Lacy Swing, “The Mediterranean challenge within a world of humanitarian crises,” Forced Migration Review 51, January 2016.

UNCHR, The Global Report 2016

UNCHR, The Global Report 2015

Patrick Witty, “See How Smartphones Have Become a Lifeline for Refugees,” Time, October 8, 2015, (accessed October 30, 2016).

Susan Wolfinbarger and Jessica Wyndham, “Remote visual evidence of displacement,” Forced Migration Review 28, October 2011.

Further Reading

Klaus Bade, Migration in European History (Blackwell, 2003).

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press, New York, 2015).

Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, GRID 2016: Global Report on Internal Displacement.

Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Leslie Page Moch, Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe since 1650 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

Saskia Sassen, Guests and Aliens (New Press, New York, 2000).

David Weissbrodt, The Human Rights of Non-Citizens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Web Sources

Annenberg Space for Photography, REFUGEE Exhibit

UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency

UNHCR infographic

UNHCR data at a glance

U.S. Refugee Screening Process

Facts about U.S. Refugee Resettlement

4 Things to Know About The Vetting Process for Syrian Refugees

History of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

“A Tour of Five Refugee Camps”

Internal Displacement Monitoring Center

The Refugee Project

“Refugees Who Have Made a Difference”

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Time article: “The Syrians Next Door”

Pew Research

Cultural Orientation Resource Center

“Return and Resettlement of Refugees and Internally Displaced Populations”

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


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