Refugees in the Neighborhood

FugeesYesterday in my first-year seminar, I made up on the spot a role-playing exercise about refugees. I divided the class into three groups:

  • A northern Kenyan village of 400 farmers and livestock herders.
  • 1,100 refugees migrating from South Sudan.
  • A humanitarian aid organization.

I told the refugees that their goal was to cross the border with Kenya and that they could only take with them what fit into a small box that I had grabbed from my desk before class (a box that had contained business cards, approximately 7″ X 4″ X 2″). They had to decide what to put in the box and determine the route to take into Kenya.

The Kenyans were told that 1,100 South Sudanese had arrived without food, water, or shelter — tripling the village’s population. These students were tasked with identifying the pre-existing needs of their village and how the refugee influx would affect village conditions.

The humanitarian aid workers got to select which NGO they were part of, and they chose Doctors Without Borders. I arbitrarily assigned them a budget of $20,000 to operate a medical clinic in the village. These students had to decide what forms of medical care they would supply and who would receive it.

Refugees chose to carry identity documents, money, photos, pocket knives, and snacks. All of them assumed that rural East Africans don’t have cell phones. I pointed out the implicit bias in this assumption.To identify a route, the refugees required a demonstration of how to use Google Maps — never underestimate the digital illiteracy of supposed digital natives. They ignored the possibility of paying people to drive them across the border.

The staff of Doctors Without Borders decided to treat both the refugees and villagers at an 80:20 ratio in terms of the clinic’s budget. They also agreed that the limited resources at their disposal necessitated a system of triage. Severe injuries and illnesses simply could not be treated in a cost-effective manner and those individuals would be left to die. Unfortunately one of the refugees had gotten shot in the chest while crossing the border and the lower right arm of the wealthiest villager was traumatically amputated when he tried to clear a jammed piece of agricultural machinery. Malaria was not judged to be worthy of treatment either because of its low mortality rate.

The villagers were upset that Doctors Without Borders was providing aid to people who were causing a shortage of clean drinking water. They also resented not being asked by wealthy foreigners what kind of aid was most needed in the village — better seeds, a reliable supply of electricity, and irrigation equipment.

Did students get any significant benefits from the exercise? I don’t know. The back and forth conversation that occurred when I questioned students about their decisions seemed useful.

I think the exercise easily could be improved by adding some structure. For example, I could provide the NGO workers with a list of different types of aid — tents, jugs of drinking water, antibiotics — the number of people helped by each type, and associated costs. This would allow me to establish specific unintended consequences for various choices.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization that assists refugees around the world, operates a news feed on Medium that could function as a source of preparatory readings.  For example, there is “What refugees ask when they arrive in Europe” and “What’s in my bag? What refugees bring when they run for their lives.”

Perhaps I should make these adjustments and run the exercise a second time.