CEOs, UN Secretary-General join UNHCR chief in Davos Refugee Run

News Stories, 30 January 2009

© Global Hand/T.Williams
VIP Tour: A simulated refugee camp classroom with some high-profile "students" in the back row. From left to right: High Commissioner Guterres, UN humanitarian chief Sir John Holmes, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

DAVOS, Switzerland, January 30 (UNHCR) There's a saying among African refugees that you can't understand a man unless you walk a mile in his shoes. This week, some of the world's top business leaders decided to join UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN refugee agency chief, António Guterres, and test out this theory.

They may not have walked a mile, but corporate bigshots such as Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson, Gucci Group Chief Executive Robert Polet and Nike CEO Mike Parker took a break from their hectic schedules at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos and briefly put themselves in the shoes of a refugee.

For an hour, they experienced a tiny bit of what life is like for the millions of people forcibly uprooted from their homes by persecution, warfare or natural disaster. The VIPs were able to share this suffering thanks to an exhibit, "Refugee Run," put together by UNHCR, some of its partners in the business and humanitarian aid worlds, and refugees themselves.

Scenarios included fleeing a rebel attack, navigating a minefield, dealing with corrupt border guards, struggling with language, surviving on the black market and living in a refugee camp. The ultimate aim is to raise awareness among some of the world's most influential people about the plight of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) and to seek funds for UNHCR operations worldwide to help them.

After taking part in the Refugee Run on Thursday, second day of the four-day summit between political and business leaders, UN Secretary-General Ban described it as "a profound experience that reminds us of the plight of millions of forcibly displaced people." Branson simply said, "Beautifully done."

The exhibit received a seal of approval from a genuine refugee, Raphael Mwandu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "The things you see in this simulation are the same as those in the camps," he said, adding that it would help let people "know what is going on in our world so that they can meet together and find solutions."

The Refugee Run is also a reminder that in the current economic climate, the world's deprived should not be forgotten. UNHCR relies on funding from governments and the private sector for its annual budget the target for this year is just under US$2 billion.

"The international community must rescue lives with the same determination they are saving banks," declared High Commissioner Guterres, who gamely took part in Refugee Run with his boss, Secretary-General Ban.

UNHCR co-organized the Refugee Run with the Global Risk Forum Davos and with Crossroads Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization that links the corporate world with humanitarian aid agencies to address global challenges. The UN refugee agency also received funding support from KPMG and from its Council of Business Leaders, which gathers Manpower, Microsoft, Nike, PricewaterhouseCoopers and WPP.