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VIPs share refugee experience in Davos; UNHCR co-launches business partnership site

VIPs share refugee experience in Davos; UNHCR co-launches business partnership site

In between the power talks, presentations and networking, VIPs at the annual Davos meeting have been experiencing a bit of life as a refugee on the run.
29 January 2010
Lord Malloch Brown takes part in the Refugee Run, which the former UN deputy secretary-general described as "compelling."

DAVOS, Switzerland, January 29 (UNHCR) - In between the power talks, presentations and networking, some of the VIPs attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos this week have been experiencing a small taste of life as a refugee on the run.

And a whole raft of top social media executives have signed up to take part in the "Refugee Run" on Saturday, penultimate day of the gathering of makers and shakers in the corporate, political, communications and humanitarian aid worlds.

They include Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger and Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace.

The Refugee Run provides a snapshot of the often terrifying ordeal suffered by people forced to flee their homes because of violence or persecution. In Davos, the unique simulation is being used to help some of the world's most influential people understand the plight of refugees and internally displaced people, empathize with them and support the efforts of UNHCR to help them.

Participants face a range of scenarios, including fleeing a rebel attack, navigating a minefield, dealing with corrupt border guards, struggling with language, facing up to potential sex traffickers, surviving on the black market, learning a new language, and living in a refugee camp. And at the end they discuss what they have learned and how they can help.

Lord Mark Malloch Brown, the former UN deputy secretary-general and one-time UNHCR staff member, was among those who have taken the run this week. "I've been working with refugees for many years. Nonetheless, this is a compelling way to remind one of what it's like," he said, after completing the hour-long exercise. "I felt helpless all the time, and very exposed," he added.

"Reading 1,000 books would not teach me what I learned in the past hour," said another VIP, who wished to remain anonymous. While the Refugee Run can only give a small idea of what life is like for a refugee, it is clearly enough to get people thinking seriously about the issues and of ways they can help.

Some of UNHCR's Geneva-based staff also had a go. "As a woman, I felt extremely vulnerable and afraid, and the lack of control over every aspect of my life was humbling," said Susannah Lovatt, who works in public affairs.

"When you put influential people through an experience together, highlight the problem, make them realize they can make a huge difference - they just might," noted another participant.

The Refugee Run was developed by the Crossroads Foundation, a Hong Kong based organization that specializes in linking the corporate world with humanitarian aid agencies to address global challenges. Crossroads is co-hosting the run in Davos with UNHCR.

Meanwhile, UNHCR took part in the launch in Davos on Friday of a new user friendly business partnership website that will help match the needs of UNHCR and its sister UN organizations with the resources and capacities of the private sector. The portal,, should help boost private-sector involvement in refugee work.

Companies willing to contribute time, money or resources can browse a catalogue of humanitarian needs and partnership opportunities, or simply submit ideas for collaboration. Based on shared interests, the site flags potential matches that can then be connected directly. It will offer UNHCR the opportunity to identify possible matches to help deliver aid to refugees.

"The new platform is a wonderful tool that is going to, I think, propel the Millennium Development Goals and so many other worthy initiatives of the UN and the business community, so I'm running to my computer and telling my colleagues about it because we see it as a fantastic new platform that is going to have many, many practical applications," said Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.