DAVOS, Switzerland – Are you looking for a little excitement in your life? Imagine what fun it would be to live through a rebel attack . . . to navigate a minefield … to negotiate with corrupt officials and border guards in a desperate effort to survive.
Thanks to a U.N.-sponsored exhibition, visitors to the World Economic Forum in Davos last week got just that opportunity -- at a theme park with a name right out of Disney: "Refugee Run."
Visitors were given the opportunity to experience the harsh conditions that millions of refugees and internally displaced people face daily in some of the world's most hostile environments and killing fields – exciting places like Darfur, Congo, Iraq and Pakistan.
Walk in and you can visit a small tent similar to the ones you see in Darfur, a canvas cover over a dirt floor. Move on to a larger tent, a replica of the shelters that house large numbers of Afghan refugees and familiea in Pakistan or Iran.
We’re taking fun for the entire family -- don't forget to visit the gift shop. And when your day in refugee hell is over, you go back to your hotel at this Swiss mountain retreat and relax in your luxurious jacuzzi.
Refugee Run -- promotional posters were everywhere on the snow-covered streets and resembled the old ads for the movies "Logan's Run" and "Midnight Run" -- left some participants enraged, and others rolling on the floor in laughter, that the misery of millions could be marketed so tastelessly at this gathering of the rich and famous.
"Can Davos man empathize with refugees when he or she is not in danger and is going back to a luxury banquet and hotel room afterwards?" William Easterly of Aid Watch wrote in a critical review.
"Isn't this just a tad different from the life of an actual refugee, at risk of all too real rape, murder, hunger, and disease? Did the words "insensitive," "dehumanizing," or "disrespectful" ever come up in discussing the plans for 'Refugee Run'?"
But others, including some influential figures, were supportive of the exhibition.
"The exhibition is artificial, but anything that sensitizes people to the harsh realities of refugees can only be a plus," said former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Refugee Run "a profound experience that reminds us of the plight of millions of forcibly displaced people."
And Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson, a corporate supporter of UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, said, "it's beautifully done."
The UNHCR sponsored Refugee Run in an effort to secure private sector interest and funding for its global operations from the rich and richer at the World Economic Forum. The objective was to increase private sector contributions to $100 million annually, said Olivier Delarue, head of UNHCR's Corporate and Foundation Partnership Unit.
U.N. officials said that reaching out to the corporate world for support is essential, because 98 percent of UNHCR's operations are dependent upon voluntary contributions from governments, individuals, corporations and foundations. In 2008, the private sector contributed about $50 million to the agency's annual budget of $1.7 billion to support millions of refugees and internally displaced persons around the planet.
Delarue said hundreds of World Economic Forum participants visited "Refugee Run," including the CEOs of Nike Inc. and Gucci Group.
Delarue said Refugee Run cost less then $100,000 and was funded completely by a private-sector umbrella group that includes representatives from Nike, Microsoft, Manpower, Price Waterhouse Coopers and others.