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On the run: Photography has a voice

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

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According to 2009 figures there are more than 43 million people on the run in the world today. Some are refugees seeking a home in a new country, while others are the internally displaced, but in many cases all they are looking for is somewhere to feel safe, somewhere to live their lives.

Photographer Espen Rasmussen has spent six years documenting the lives of some of those people, from the camps in the DR Congo to the displaced in Georgia.

Transit, a recently published book of the work and an exhibition at The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo contains an incredible collection of pictures that in my opinion form one of the most compelling arguments for the sustained power of photography from recent years.

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image captionDue to the heat Somali refugees sleep outside at the Mayfa'ah reception centre in Yemen. Between 100 and 400 refugees arrive at UNHCR centre every day

A short sequence at the end of the book comprises pictures of spaces in which the displaced sleep. There's a mat on a bed of straw in the DR Congo, mattresses at a UNHCR reception area in Yemen and a room for asylum seekers in Norway.

These simple pictures, say so much: the powerless individual caught up in events beyond control or comprehension and those who are trying to work through a system of bureaucracy. Yet it also includes moments of hope and humanity as throughout the book the individuals come through.

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image caption'I've been waiting for a response from the immigration authorities. I might get a positive response, just maybe. I can never be sure because I'm a foreigner in Norway. If they say yes, I will be a Norwegian boy. But I have to respect a negative response too, because Norway is a great country'

Alongside the photographs are the stories of those on the run plus an introduction by Jan Egeland. The stories are similar the world over, families on the run to protect their children from being abducted or forced to join guerrilla units, other who dare not return home following conflicts that officially ended many years ago.

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image captionIn 2008 the main road into Goma in the DR Congo was packed with men, women, children and the elderly fleeing the conflict. In just a few days more than 100,000 people had arrived in Goma and the surrounding areas

Rasmussen's tenacity to visit the places where the TV crews have long since moved on from is admirable, but unlike so much photojournalism it is not his voice that comes across through the book, it is those of the silent millions whose lives are represented in these pages. Powerful stuff indeed.

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image captionThe Rohingya, who are Muslims, are not recognised by the military-backed government in Burma, and have fled by the hundreds of thousands overseas. This man is a fisherman who lives on the beach in Bangladesh and spends all day out in the ocean fishing, he said: 'It is much better to live here than in the camps. In this place, we are able to make a small living, and we are not harassed.' The two remaining official camps still house some 28,000 refugees and in addition to those an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas live scattered across Bangladesh
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image captionSomali refugees who had just arrived on the coast of Yemen are crammed into a UNHCR truck before being taken to the Ahwar reception centre two hours away. In 2008 over 40,000 Somali refugees arrived in Yemen, bringing the total number close to 250,000
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image captionA mother and her child shelter at a temporary IDP centre in Tbilisi during the conflict in Georgia in 2008. A year later Amnesty International stated that some 30,000 people remained displaced
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image captionAna Melinda’s 11 children are just some of the 30,000 IDPs who live on the outskirts of the jungle town of Quibdo on the western side of Colombia. Rasmussen was there in 2007. Melinda said: 'One morning several men knocked on our door. They wanted to take my 14-year-old son as a fighter. He wanted to go with them but I did not want him or any of my children to end up with the guerrillas or paramilitary. Our only choice was to flee'