Scouts sample refugee life at their international jamboree

News Stories, 8 August 2007

© UNHCR/C.Graham
Scouts wear blindfolds and hold hands to avoid becoming separated, playing the role of refugees trying to sneak cross a border at night.

CHELMSFORD, England, August 8 (UNHCR) The young scout is miles from his home in Portugal. So far he's been having fun, but now he looks puzzled. No food, no shelter, no education, no freedom. His only lifeline: being able to speak the language. How will he survive?

Next in the queue, a teenage scout from India looks pleased with himself. He may not have the language, but he has food, shelter, freedom within his grasp. "And with access to education, I can learn the language!" he declares, triumphantly.

As 40,000 scouts break camp at the international jamboree in Chelmsford that marked the centenary of scouting, why were some members of this "Be Prepared" organization less equipped than you would expect?

Luckily, the basic 'needs' these scouts have been grappling with are in fact balloons just one of the games the UN Refugee Agency, together with local partner STAR (Student Action for Refugees), has been running at the jamboree to get scouts thinking about refugee issues and how they can partner with UNHCR to help refugees.

Alongside the balloon game, in which players become refugees in a new land and juggle 'essential needs' trying to hold onto as many as possible scouts have had the opportunity to experience what it is like to be forced to flee your home, thanks to a sneak preview of UNHCR's computer game 'Against All Odds'. Jamboree visitors can also show their support for refugee rights in a 'hands up for refugees' handprint campaign.

Thomas, a 20-year-old scout from France who volunteered to help UNHCR at the jamboree, explains the stand's success: "Scouts have told us they like our stand the most because you can learn something with games. And games are better, as people remember what they learn."

While the stand draws in the crowds on one of the jamboree's main boulevards, down the hill, in a tent tucked under the trees, UNHCR and STAR run equally popular twice daily workshops for groups of 25-50 scouts using 'Passages' a role play in which participants are forced to flee their home and seek sanctuary in another country.

Activity leaders wind lines of hand-holding, blindfolded scouts between tree trunks and guy ropes as they try to cross the border at night. Scouts must then decipher forms in a nonsensical script and negotiate with temperamental and disinterested border officials to get all their family members, even the 'sick' and 'injured', through to under-resourced camps on the other side.

"I hadn't realized it was so horrible," said one Girl Scout from francophone Belgium. "There shouldn't be refugees," added her 'brother', a Boy Scout from Greece, saying: "And if there are, we should welcome them and support them until they can get a job."

At the end of all activities, the UNHCR/STAR volunteers offer the scouts a chance to talk through everything they have learnt and felt, and discuss how scouts can help refugees in their own countries.

"The best is when the scouts learn something about refugees and say they want to do something to help," says Thomas, one of five scout volunteers on UNHCR's stand working alongside UNHCR/STAR supporters.

"Some are already doing things. Scouts in Colombia told us they play football with displaced children, Portuguese scouts said they give out food parcels, and a scout from Sri Lanka said he distributed food and blankets to people after the 2004 tsunami," he said.

And what will Thomas do after the stand is packed away and he is back home in France? "I'm busy with my studies," he replies: "but I will check UNHCR's website every now and then, to see if people need my help."

Over the last 10 days, nearly 2,500 scouts from Norway to New Zealand, Brazil to Bangladesh have taken part in one or more of UNHCR's jamboree activities, the latest initiative in a UNHCR/World Scout Association partnership that has spanned several years. In tribute to the Scout's centenary, UNHCR launched an online 'scout site' that includes jamboree games, ideas on how young people can get involved and details of how scouts have assisted the UN refugee agency in the past.

By Clare Graham in Chelmsford, United Kingdom

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