Last month I heard on the radio about an event taking place at The Forks in Winnipeg. Turns out that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was running a tour that would be in town that weekend — the event was to set up a refugee camp and give tours of it so people could get a feel for the facilities and the conditions in one of the many refugee camps in the world. We decided it’d be good for the whole family, so we all headed down to check it out. Unfortunately, the SD Card with the photos was corrupted, but there are other photos online of the event, and you can preview it online as well to get a sense of the different stations on the tour and the information presented at each. The preview sets you in the role of the refugee — or IDP, Internally Displaced Person, since “refugees” are technically people who have crossed a border; IDPs may be in the same position, but have not actually left their country.
According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.”
A United Nations report, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement states that “internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”
The tour was quite impacting, and made an impression on our oldest daughter (age 10), who found some aspects of it difficult to handle. It isn’t that the tour was graphic or otherwise disturbing, but she’s tender-hearted and was able to absorb some of what it means for people to have to live under such conditions for years, or indefinitely. Our seven-year-old wasn’t impacted in quite the same way — we explained what it meant, but the reality of the matter wouldn’t hit her in quite the same way. Obviously the scale was minuscule in comparison to the size of camps actually established. Tours were guided by MSF volunteers who had experienced the camps and were able to share personal observations as well. It was striking to see some of the children’s toys that were made in the camps, and to learn about the methods of distributing water and food. We even had the opportunity to taste the bland rations that MSF distributes (food distribution is not their main focus).
We learned quite a bit about MSF as well as about the camps and the kind of work they do there. MSF is typically the first organization on the ground in response to a crisis situation. Often refugee camps will spring up in a specific region, and MSF will arrive and begin urgent medical care as well as organizing basic requirements such as water and latrines. Unlike many relief organizations, their funding is 100% from private donations, which allows them to enter any country without fear of accusations of being tied to the agenda of any government. Typically their mission is to establish the camp and do the initial care necessary until other NGOs and relief organizations arrive, at which point MSF can hand off their work. I was quite impressed with MSF overall, and I confess I began to imagine a scenario of volunteering with the organization as a logistician, as their need of volunteers includes many non-medical personnel. My awareness of the issues surrounding refugee camps in general was increased, and my respect for MSF was significantly heightened through the experience.
I was reading something earlier that quoted Bono’s speech from the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast:
This is not about charity in the end, is it? It’s about justice. The good news yet to come. I just want to repeat that: This is not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad. Because we’re good at charity. Americans, Irish people, are good at charity. We like to give, and we give a lot, event those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties; it doubts our concern, and it questions our commitment. Six and a half thousand Africans are still dying every day of preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity. This is about justice and equality.
Of course, Bono nails a huge distinction. I chose today for this post to participate in Blog Action Day for 2008 on poverty… and I think that by and large, we consider poverty to be a matter for a charitable response. In fact, such a small response will be woefully inadequate. We need to respond with an urgent drive for justice — one that won’t just settle for charity.