News Stories, 18 April 2011
BAYANGOL VALLEY, Mongolia, April 18 (UNHCR) – Laughter rocked a conference centre here as government and UNHCR negotiators faced off last weekend to hammer out an agreement to protect 20,000 refugees who had just fled an uprising and flooded into the country.
The scenario, which could have been ripped from the headlines, was only a role-playing exercise at a workshop for 66 executive assistants to the members of the Mongolian Parliament, The Great State Hural.
The goal was to familiarize them with the 1951 Refugee Convention, how refugees feel when they flee for their lives, and how UNHCR and countries around the world protect refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.
"This is part of an effort by UNHCR to build alliances in key sectors of Mongolian society to support the government and parliament's intention to accede to the Convention," said Nai Jit Lam, one of the trainers, and senior regional protection officer from UNHCR's Regional Office in Beijing.
The workshop, held in this rugged windswept valley 30 km west of the Mongolian capital, Ulanbataar, was covered on prime-time news Saturday evening by two of Mongolia's top TV news channels.
Two separate UNHCR workshops earlier last week introduced lecturers from Ulanbataar law schools and officials of Mongolian non-governmental organizations – including human rights groups, and those working against human trafficking and domestic violence – to the 1951 Convention and the UN refugee agency's history.
"This would be a particularly auspicious year for Mongolia to accede to the convention, because in 2011 UNHCR is marking the 60th anniversary of the convention," Lam added. "Mongolia would attract considerable international attention and support if it signed in this very special year."
The role-playing game – in which the executive assistants had to negotiate under severe time pressure an agreement to handle a mass influx of refugees – dealt with extremely serious issues of balancing refugee protection with national security, very real concerns in Mongolia. The laughter was sparked by outrageous demands and resulting displays of outrage as they pretended to be the National Security Council of fictitious "Government B" and top officials of UNHCR.
"The UN just promised money but we wanted national security," the mock president of "Country B" complained as he briefed the whole group on their outcome of negotiations.
"The UN did not make any promise of giving money," protested the man playing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "We just said we could share some costs."
A second group's report on the same exercise turned into an impromptu press conference as participants spontaneously hurled criticism from the floor.
"You put your economic interests ahead of your humanitarian obligations," one executive assistant yelled at the second "president" who had made economic aid a condition of helping the refugees. "You want to make slaves of these refugees."
"I didn't bring them, they just came," he shrugged.
At the Sunday closing session, one participant, Myagmardash Batbayar, confessed: "The day before yesterday if you had asked us, we would probably have said that we would not join the Convention. But because of this training, our minds have changed and we now have a much better understanding of the Convention."
To loud applause and cheers from his colleagues, who are mostly in their twenties and thirties, he told the UNHCR trainers: "We should be able to extend our hospitality to refugees and take care of them like their parents."
By Kitty McKinsey
In Bayangol Valley, Mongolia