From mapping to kidnaps, UN aid workers train for refugee crises

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 March 2016 00:01 GMT

UNHCR staff get stopped at a check point and are asked to show their IDs by soldiers during a simulation exercise in Mont Rolland, near Thies, Senegal, March 14, 2016. UNHCR/Helene Caux

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UNHCR staff from around the world undergo emergency training to prepare to be sent for operations in humanitarian crises

By Kieran Guilbert

THIES, Senegal, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Surrounded and dragged in all directions by hungry, sick and desperate refugees, the newly arrived aid workers race between pregnant women and small children while negotiating with the military in an attempt to control the chaos.

The soldiers threaten the aid workers and draw their rifles as fighting breaks out among the refugees and several women fall to their knees, crying and pleading for food, until the shrill blast of a whistle brings the training drill to a halt.

"I forgot almost everything we learned when the simulation started - you really feel the pressure and stress," said Elisa Carlaccini, one of several United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) staff gathered at an army base in the Senegalese city of Thies.

Dozens of UNHCR staff from nearly 30 countries round the world are undergoing emergency training as they prepare to be sent to join operations in a range of humanitarian crises.

The refugee agency deployed some 400 people on emergency missions last year, with unprecedented demand for reinforcements across southeastern Europe as the continent grappled with its worst migration crisis since World War Two.

Since the UNHCR started its emergency training in 1989, most participants have been sent to Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

But as the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Italy and Greece since the start of 2016 has risen sharply from early 2015 levels, the UNHCR expects to send at least as many emergency aid workers to Europe as elsewhere this year.

"The migration movement in Europe is a major humanitarian concern, but we are also worried about Burundi, Mozambique and South Sudan, as well as Syria, Afghanistan and even Venezuela," UNHCR senior staff development officer Peter Kessler said.

"There is virtually no continent which is untouched by conflict and displacement, which is why we bring together staff from various countries around the world for this training."


The UNHCR emergency training, which is held three to four times a year and took place in Africa for the first time last year, puts staff through 10 days of lectures and intense drills.

Participants learn first aid, basic negotiating skills and how to map a site using GPS and plan a refugee camp, before using their new knowledge in various roleplay exercises.

In one scenario where Nigerian refugees in a village in Cameroon have gone days without aid, team leader Alexander Novikau defuses a tense standoff between the army and suspected Boko Haram militants before calming the panicked refugees.

"The training is even faster, more intense and extreme than reality," the Azerbaijan-based UNHCR protection officer said, between mouthfuls of lukewarm army rations and instant coffee.

"We make decisions in seconds, when we would normally take our time to prepare for the stress of a crisis," added Novikau, who has worked in Sudan, Afghanistan and Myanmar and hopes to be sent to the front lines of an emergency in the coming months.

The participants, many of whom are normally office workers and have not experienced a crisis, are kept in the dark about what to expect during the three days of roleplays and training drills, which culminate in an ambush and kidnapping scenario.

While being restrained, hooded and dragged along the ground may be an ordeal for the fresh-faced UNHCR staff, many of the more hardened humanitarians have experienced worse in reality.

Dakar-based Karmen Sakhr was working in a refugee camp at the Iraq-Jordan border after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Iranian Kurds tried to kidnap her because they felt she was favouring the Palestinian refugees living in the camp.

"I got in a car to escape, but it was quickly surrounded. On one side, Iranian Kurds were pulling me by my legs, while the Palestinians were pulling me by the arms from the other side to try and protect me," Sakhr said, laughing loudly at the memory.


In another scenario, participants spot the wreckage of a car crash and rush towards two victims who are screaming and holding their prosthetic wounds at the roadside - failing to notice signs reading 'Danger! Mines!' as they race to their aid.

No explosions or bangs follow, just a wry smile and gentle chiding from UNHCR first aid coordinator Marc Desvilliers.

"Three of you could have died before you even reached the injured," he said, while checking the bandages, tourniquets and splints applied to the victims - played by Senegalese soldiers.

"Splints must be applied tightly, but I was able to move one with just two fingers, and some of the tourniquets are useless."

The post-drill debriefs address a variety of blunders - from forgetting to lock car doors to not showing enough respect to village chiefs and failing to calm tensions between Christian and Muslim refugees.

The 40 humanitarians on the course, whittled down from 400 applicants, will join UNHCR's emergency roster after completing the training, and are likely to be deployed to a crisis for two to three months within a year.

"The training is vital because you learn not only about how to work in a team, but also about yourself," said Mathjis Le Rutte, UNHCR deputy regional representative for West Africa.

"How will you behave and react in a crisis? How will you deal with an influx of new arrivals, or manage an angry mob?"

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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