Last month I had the pleasure of running a classroom simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at the University of Exeter with Prof. Mick Dumper for his POL 2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. Gamers extraordinaire Tom Mouat and Jim Wallman came down for the day to assist, along with graduate student Abigail Grace. Today I ran the same simulation at McGill University for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 course on the international refugee regime, together with a few from my own POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. This time ICAMES graduate research fellow (and teaching assistant) Ecem Oskay was there to help.
The Exeter Control team, complete with empty sack of goat food.
Both simulations involved around two dozen students. Both simulations went very well, I thought.
A variety of roles were represented in the simulation:
- The Lebanese Prime Minister, plus various cabinet ministers (from the Future Movement, Phalange, Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement, Progressive Socialist Party) and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This gave some differentiation in terms of portfolios and responsibilities, and also recreated some of the political and sectarian tensions between the “March 8” and “March 14” coalitions within the Lebanese government.
- Various UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, and World Food Programme)
- A (fictional) local charitable association.
- Human Rights Watch.
- The European Union ambassador (representing the donor community more broadly).
- The refugees themselves. Each of these had a different back story in terms of geographic origin, occupation/social class, family needs and situation, sectarian affiliation, and political views. One was a female-headed household. Two of the refugees were secretly opposition organizers, for the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Some were Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather than Syrian citizens.
The Lebanese cabinet makes a joint announcement, hoping to dampen down sectarian tensions. (Exeter)
In designing the simulation I wanted to avoid a simple seminar-type negotiation exercise in which the stakeholders all sit down around a table and try to achieve an agreement on something. For a start, such an approach wouldn’t generate the sense of overbearing crisis that Lebanon feels, a small country hosting some 1.2 million refugees from the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring Syria. In addition, it would also misrepresent the dynamics whereby refugee policy emerges. Refugees do not, as a rule, play any sort of direct role in policy formulation. Instead, their actions and coping strategies provide the context.
Consequently, this simulation was really two linked simulations in one.
The Lebanese Armed Forces questions refugees, looking for evidence of militants and paramilitary activities. (McGill)
At one level, refugees were tasked with simply trying to survive. Each hour they would have to make choices about how to try to earn money (beg? work illegally in Lebanon? try to cross back into Syria?), where to live (a squatter camp? a squalid flat? a middle class apartment?), and what additional goods did they want to buy (basic durables? medicine? forged papers?) Choices had consequences–they might be arrested, deported, or shot crossing the border, or their children might get ill from poor accommodations.
The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)
The refugees were also given tarps, ropes, cardboard, old carpets, and other materials and were required to construct their own makeshift shelters in the classroom—which at one point were then torn down by angry Lebanese farmers seeking to reclaim their fields. They were required to undertake manual labour, representing the sort of unskilled jobs refugees typically take: in Exeter this consisted of endlessly moving furniture from one end of the classroom to the other and back again, while at McGill they had to carry heavy bags up and down four flights of steps. In their spare time they might beg, or protest, or even smuggle weapons.
Refugees build shelters near the United Nations compound as a member of the Control team looks on. (McGill)
Each hour a random event card would be drawn. Some of these were good: relatives in Europe might send money, or a refugee might reconnect with old friends. Many others were negative: agonizing moral choices, sexual assault, sickness. Refugee resiliency was tracked with tokens. If refugees ran out of these their coping skills were sharply diminished, or they were instructed to just sit and sob in their shelters until someone offered them some help. Throughout, all of the refugees kept handwritten diaries of their experiences.
The Lebanese Army arrests a refugee. (Exeter)
Everyone in the simulation was provided with lunch—except the refugees, who were expected to “buy” it with their meagre simulation income. Depending on their luck and decisions, some didn’t eat for hours, and others not at all. Refugees were also prohibited from sitting in chairs or accessing their telephones or laptops unless they “paid” to use these too. Their rooms were often plunged into darkness, unless they illegally connected to the Lebanese power grid. In Exeter we opened the windows on what was a cold and damp day to increase the refugee discomfort level (it was -18C in Montreal, which didn’t really make that a viable option).
This unfortunate refugee didn’t make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)
The aid actors had some resources (cash, food, other items), but not enough. The UN in particular had to register the refugees and undertake a needs assessment to make sure that the most vulnerable received priority.
Angry refugees protest their treatment. (McGill)
At another level, this was a more traditional policy simulation. The UN team was tasked with drawing up a comprehensive refugee strategy to which the Lebanese government might agree. The Lebanese government was concerned not only with this, but also with a number of other challenges that cropped up (a bomb attack, jihadist suspects hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, complaints that the Syrians were pushing Lebanese workers out of jobs, crime, illegal electrical connections, a measles outbreak among the refugees—among others). The EU sought to promote a more effective response to the refugee crisis, and had some funds to support this. Human Rights Watch tried to raise human rights issues with Lebanese policymakers and the international community. The refugees were largely absent in any direct sense from these discussions and negotiations, although their choices or even protests fundamentally shaped the policy environment.
All of the policy actors were expected to take notes and minutes, and prepare formal presentations or reports that were submitted during the simulation.
Officials listen to a presentation by Human Rights Watch. (Exeter)
In both the Exeter and McGill simulation runs, the Lebanese grew increasingly concerned at the economic, political, and security challenges presented by the refugees. The UN proposed an integrated refugee strategy after several hours of consultation, but in both cases the Lebanese government rejected the proposal and called for further discussions.
The Lebanese cabinet poses for a photograph, shortly after rejecting UN proposals and calling for further discussions. (McGill)
In both simulations, despite significant local and international aid, the refugees felt they largely had to fend for themselves, and grew resentful that more wasn’t done to help them. In the debrief, many of the well-meaning internationals were rather surprised to hear this.
In the debrief session we were careful to identify the artificial aspects of the simulation—for example, more simulated than real refugees were involved in paramilitary skullduggery, and real refugees would be less likely to organize protests for fear of arrest or deportation. But there were also many, many realistic outcomes that we could point to and discuss. The refugees in particular got a sense of marginalization and vulnerability, but also how refugee communities could organize to help each other in sometimes small but important ways.
This was not a simple simulation—it was 6-7 hours of intense activity, involving a 3-4 person control team. However, those who participated seem to find it well worth the time spent.