The participants arrive at simulation exercise location. UNHCR / Simplice Kpandji
Picture the following scene: humanitarian workers receive an urgent call to travel to a region which is facing an influx of refugees. On their way to help them, the team comes to a military checkpoint: they exchange pleasantries with the law enforcement officers and enquire about the general situation in the region. “Everything is under control,” the soldiers tell them. Suddenly, bursts of machine gunfire ring out a few metres away, the deafening sound of explosives is heard, automatic weapons go off, and there are shouts. Armed groups jump out from behind the bushes and tell the humanitarian workers to get down, beating them badly before pulling hoods over their heads and leading them to an unknown destination.
Now picture 10,000 refugees crossing a border overnight, fleeing the violence imposed upon them by their own government or by rebel forces. They are hungry, thirsty, without shelter, and there are wounded among them. They are in urgent need of assistance.
These scenarios are a regular occurrence for humanitarian workers all over the world. In order to better equip them for such eventualities, the UNHCR emergency response teams based in Geneva and Budapest organised a simulation exercise for 40 or so participants in the Workshop on Emergency Management (WEM) session which ran from 13-22 May. The WEM was hosted by the Thiès military base and participants came from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
This workshop has historically been held in Europe, and its introduction to the African continent was a big challenge for the organisers, particularly to secure financing. “Holding the WEM in Africa and in French has always been in our plans,” says Johanna Haener, responsible for the deployment of UNHCR employees in emergency operations at the UNHCR office in Geneva. “Two years ago, during a meeting with sponsors, I put forth a proposal to hold the workshop in Africa and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation proved a sympathetic ear, agreeing to finance the first WEM in Africa.”
“Most of the world’s humanitarian emergencies take place in Africa, including in French-speaking countries. So it was time to offer WEM training on this continent.” All elements related to logistics, transport, and accommodation were designed so that participants could experience acceptable but realistic conditions for working in emergency situations.
The WEM is a combination of theoretical classes taught by experienced instructors, and practical training,” explains Mathijs Le Rutte, Deputy Regional Representative of Protection for UNHCR West Africa. “The core element of this training is to reinforce the importance of team work when working under pressure in emergency situations.” The team of instructors is made up of about 20 experts in health, law, human resources, administration and finances, programme, logistics, media, telecommunications, database management, mapping and safety, and they come from Switzerland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Senegal.
The instructors taught theoretical classes in their respective fields of expertise over the first five days. The theoretical training was followed up with practical training when the participants were transferred to a simulation site located 20km from Thiès where they camped. The Senegalese military provided the site with basic amenities. Eight large tents were erected and equipped with beds, mattresses, and mosquito nets, the site was supplied with drinkable water and an electricity generator was installed.
Over four days and three nights, the participants, split into four groups of 10 people, took part in simulation exercises. “Here, the training environment is closer to what humanitarian workers will experience in a real crisis situation,” explains Isabelle Emmanuelli, who is in charge of the deployment of employees on the ground during emergency operations. “And that is what sets the training apart from WEMs held in Europe.”
As for the participants, they hope to be deployed as soon as possible in order to put their new skills into practice. “We have learned a great deal,” says Gédéon Nijimbere, a Burundi national in charge of community services at the UNHCR office in Meiganga, Cameroon. “Most importantly, we had the opportunity to learn about all areas of UNHCR intervention. I have been working for the [UN Refugee] Agency for 10 years now and I have only just learned how to open a new field office, how to use GPS, and how to perform first aid on an injured person, for example.”
“I learned the importance of team work,” says Andrea Frey, a Hungarian participant and Administration Manager at the UNHCR office in Guiglo, Côte d’Ivoire. “It was a great experience for me. I was able to develop my ability to work with and help others, and that is really going to help me in my work in Côte d’Ivoire.”
Hopefully the holding of the first WEM in Africa and in French is just the beginning. “It is a great achievement for us and it should be repeated,” says Mathijs Le Rutte. “It was a real challenge to hold this event for the first time here in Africa. We owe this success to the Senegalese authorities who have spared no effort in offering us the simulation site and making the necessary modifications, and also to the Thiès military base officers who hosted us and took an active role in the various simulation exercises.” The participants are now a lot more prepared both physically and mentally to perform their duties in crisis situations.
The Workshop on Emergency Management was established by the UNHCR in 1989 and the first field operations simulation took place in 1998. Four sessions are held each year and they involve participants from a range of backgrounds, mainly UNHCR staff, but also employees of NGOs and donors. More than 3,000 people have been trained and deployed urgently in a number of crisis operations around the world.
-UNHCR Senegal (http://kora.unhcr.org/le-wem/)