Analyzing the Refugee Rights of The New York Times Magazine’s “The Dream Boat”

In 2013, Joel van Houdt and Luke Mogelson, an experienced reporter/photographer duo, embarked on a journey that has killed over 1,000 people since 2007. Joining 55 asylum-seekers from Indonesia, the two, undercover as Georgian refugees, traveled from Indonesia to Christmas Island, 200 miles across the Indian Ocean. Luckily, they made it, but for many others, the journey of desperation does not end with a new home.

This is the subtext to the plight of every refugee: Whatever hardship he endures, he endures because it beats the hardship he escaped. Every story of exile implies the sadder story of a homeland. Source.

The story followed the lengths, and costs, of the journey across the ocean, and “The Dream Boat” won The New York Times Magazine the National Magazine Awards Reporting prize in 2014. In a rare form of reporting, unseen in other news organizations, Mogelson give a voice to the voiceless, people whose stories are not regularly told in first person. The reader hears from multiple refugees along the way, from the start of the voyage—the payments, the lodgings, the back alley deals—to the three day trip, and learns about the refugee rights violations occurring in Australia, a first world country, today. Currently, “boat people” are diverted to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (if they aren’t turned away at sea), where they are held for weeks, even years, awaiting their application to be considered.

Joel van Houdt and Luke Mogelson return after their trip on the asylum-seeker boat. Source: The Australian

The long-form piece tells the story behind each refugee, and the story behind why they are refugees, putting the right to seek asylum, to leave one’s country, into focus. While the ethics of the reporters joining the mission do not strike me as completely sound, the story that they tell, the images they show, fully deserve the recognition they have received.

Analyzing the Refugee Rights of The New York Times Magazine’s “The Dream Boat”

Why Reporting on Refugees Matters

Credit: Reuters/Daniel Munoz
Credit: Reuters/Daniel Munoz

In many cases, refugees cannot have their stories told. Often they are located in overwhelming numbers. Maybe there is no translator. They are voiceless, outnumbered, and under a load of stress many people will never bear in their lifetime.

To me, bearing witness is sharing that story that hasn’t been told. It is explaining to readers that these refugees, fleeing persecution of some kind, have a voice, a story, and are more than just a number. It’s doing exactly as Roger Cohen stated in “A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility’.” It’s sharing the “smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.” It’s describing “the hush of dignity… the adrenaline rush of courage coalescing, … [and] the fresh raw line of a welt.”

It’s making these people matter. They do matter. And the fact that they exist in nearly every country in the world leads back to the very human rights violations that journalists are covering. They should be journalist’s primary sources for news of the world’s traumas.

I make it a point not to buy certain magazines, not because I am against tabloids or things like that, but I want to fill my mind with valid issues in the world. I’d like there to be less refugees… That’s what we need to be thinking about… Not to cloud our minds with things that don’t matter. -Angelina Jolie

While others are covering the events that caused their exodus, it is still within our responsibility to focus on where they are now, how they are living, and what their rights are for moving on or going home. Even in cases where journalists are banned, as in Syria, coverage is still possible, and necessary to draw a human connection to the violations being committed there.

In these stories, the necessity to be truthful in all things is vital. People directly suffer from misinformation in these stories. The National Union of Journalists have developed a resource for journalists looking to interview and cover refugees and their circumstances.

Asylum-seekers and refugees have a right to be heard and many have amazing stories to tell. However fear of reprisals ‘back home’, stereotyping, negative coverage and public hostility make many reluctant to talk to journalists. Source

There is a story behind every person, a reason why they are who they are, and in a refugee’s case, that story needs to be shared, to bear witness to their past in a way only they can.

Why Reporting on Refugees Matters

The United States and Refugees: Where do we stand?

Refugees have been around since the world began. Since tribes were formed, boundaries created, and cultural differences developed. It started as early as 740 BC, when 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel were expelled.

Today, refugees from nearly every country in the world are relocated, within their country or outside, and the numbers, thanks to the sheer overwhelming number of refugees around the world, are complicated beyond measure. The United Nations Council on Human Rights has an extensive record of known refugee statistics through 2012.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The media, across all countries, does a mediocre job at best, of covering the ongoing refugee crisis, focusing more on the cultural, political, and religious causes of the refugees fleeing. Refugees fleeing conflicts in countries like Colombia, Myanmar, and Central African Republic are severely under reported. Stories about refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, under the media and international spotlight, are slightly more reported, as they also account for more than 6.7 million of the world’s refugee population.

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Source: UNCHR Mid-Year Trends Report 2014

Today, Turkey plays home to 1.6 million refugee from Syria alone. Turkish newspapers are consistently interested, and surprisingly not outraged at the influx of refugees left in their country. The United States focuses much more of it’s reporting on immigration, and less on asylum-seeking refugees. Search the New York Times website for “immigration,” and you’ll find 103,454 results. Search “refugee” and 47,078 mentions are found.

Though the U.S. has hosted over 1.8 million refugees since 1980, our country does not receive as many requests as European and developing Middle Eastern countries. The media does cover the topic though, with National Geographic being a strong champion of spreading information about refugees. From the Christian Science Monitor to Mother Jones, media outlets across the nation contribute features, as well.

While the U.S. itself has a positive recent history with refugees, budgeting up to 70,000 in 2015, that history is marred by past events that many would like to erase from memory. In 1939, the U.S. turned away more than 900 Holocaust refugees on the SS St. Louis, who were forced to return back to Europe. It wasn’t until the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 that refugees even became a major player in immigration law.

Recently, Australia is facing the same scrutiny, after turning away a boat full of refugees back to Indonesia, where they faced possible torture and death. They have also struck a deal with Cambodia, a country with a concerning history of human rights violations, that allows Australia to ship potential refugees out of the country.

By the end of 2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. (Source)

In my eyes, all that is left is “simply” more coverage. There is not nearly the level of compassion fatigue in this case than of the many other human rights covered today. People simply do not know, or understand, the sheer size of the refugee population, and the violations against them. The U.S. and its people must be part of the solution.

The United States and Refugees: Where do we stand?

Human Rights: Abridged

Freedom of speech. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. Freedom of shelter. These four goals, adopted by the Allies systematically liberating hundreds of thousands of starving, repressed, and tortured humans as the end of World War II neared, laid the foundation for what we see today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In April 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization met to come up with a not so basic list covering the rights that each human being must be granted without fail. The 50 countries involved put together 30 articles, which was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948 as international law. These rights can be found across the world today in parts of the constitutional laws of many democratic nations, like our own.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world. Source.

We spoke in class about whether or not we could imagine a world where the laws and rights stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were fully in affect, and upheld internationally. My answer, unfortunately, was no. I cannot even begin to fathom a world of true equality, void of torture, slavery, trafficking, and discrimination. It is not the world I live in now and I highly doubt it will be the world when I die.

Courtesy of the UN
Courtesy of the UN.

In my mind, the closest we will get to the “perfect” world, where each human is fully granted the rights laid out in the UDHR, will be one where each government is actively working towards making that world a reality. When countries admit to their violations and takes steps to enforce the protection of all citizens, I think the UDHR will have served its purpose.

Human Rights: Abridged

Why am I here?

I’m going to get a little introspective for a second. I do not expect to be a war photographer or a conflict reporter. It’s not what I have for my life plan. I doubt I’ll be threatened by a life of entertainment journalism or magazine longform. But that does not mean that this profession, journalism, is a walk in the park.

“Dying to Tell the Story” follows Amy Eldon on her journey to find peace after her brother Dan’s untimely death as a photographer in Somalia. He was stoned to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While his path took a different turn, his reasoning, and that of the other journalists interviewed in the film, follows my own.

“I can’t work 9 to 5.”

“We hope that just showing these pictures would have an effect.”

“You have a front row seat to the making of history. That’s why we’re there.”

For each journalist seriously considering hard news and feature writing, the sentiments follow the simplicity of Christiane Amanpour’s simple answer.

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Screenshot from “Dying to Tell a Story” (via

“It’s our duty,” she says. The basic essence of what we do is to tell a story. That story can make a difference, share a perspective, or enlighten a population. But it always needs to mean something.

In an age where 55% of readers spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page, according to web analytic site Chartbeat, that necessity to learn and grow from is dissipating.

The compassion fatigue is hitting general media consumers hard, especially online. That hope that the information that we as journalists pass along makes a difference is hard to come by, with so many human rights violations, wars, and every day tragedies to be covered.

But at the end of the day, each of the journalists stay true to their reasoning. Regardless of the reaction, they keep covering. Because, as Amanpour says, “they have to be of consequence.”

Why am I here?