UNHCR records big hits at Glastonbury

News Stories, 1 July 2005

© UNHCR/A.Momoh
UNHCR's stand at Glastonbury featured tabloid stories on asylum seekers and a game where visitors had to pack for an emergency exodus.

LONDON, July 1 (UNHCR) More than 3,000 visitors to Glastonbury, Europe's largest open-air music festival, thronged into UNHCR's stall recently to participate in a variety of interactive activities celebrating the courage of refugees.

With twice as many visitors to the stand than last year, this was the UN refugee agency's biggest audience to date as it marked its third year at the music fiesta that ran from June 24-26 and brought more than 150,000 campers to Glastonbury, a small quiet town in Somerset, England.

The torrential rainfall and thunderstorms which opened the three-day event did not dampen the spirits of the revellers, but many were moved to tears when they saw the stories and paintings by the boys at Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp displayed in the UNHCR tent.

"This representation of the emotional journey of refugees struck a chord," said volunteer Heather Hutchings. "It reinforced the reality that asylum seekers are ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations."

The summer deluge in the tented marshland of Glastonbury brought Helen McElhinney, a first-time visitor to the festival, closest to experiencing what life is like as a refugee.

"Our leaking tent gave me a sense of what sort of hardships refugees may face, particularly when we got flooded after the storm. And trying to take shelter in it when it felt like a hothouse on the really warm days was a bit of a wake-up call to how much I take my home comforts for granted."

Through specially-designed games involving an emergency suitcase and the tabloids, visitors to the UNHCR stand had the opportunity to put themselves in the position of refugees forced to flee their homeland.

"The games were a popular activity in the tent and responses to the question of what three possessions to take while fleeing varied from the very practical to downright bizarre," observed Ruth Walker, another volunteer. "Those who took part thought it was awful trying to pack a bag and not knowing when or if you would be coming back."

Many more were shocked. "It's appalling and irresponsible," declared one visitor who found the tabloid stories and headlines which perpetuate negative stereotypes of asylum seekers and refugees in the United Kingdom too hard to take.

Beatrice Good, a Spaniard living in London, thought the myth-debunking fortune cookies were not only tasty but also "fed you with facts and provided an opportunity to engage with refugee issues."

The Refugee Council's celebration of the 1951 Refugee Convention on June 25 was supported by UNHCR and added to the successful outing of the refugee agency's hardworking and exhausted team of volunteers and staff.

By Ahmed Momoh in London, United Kingdom