Just off Central Park West &72nd Street, steps away from The Dakota and John Lennon’s Imagine Memorial, a cluster of tents, emergency water supply, toilet facilities and food rations have been set up by the Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the French-inspired Nobel Prize winning group of doctors, humanitarian aid experts and volunteers. Today is the last day of the exhibit and people form groups of fifteen – twenty to take the tour to learn first hand what it might mean to be forced to go to a refugee camp because of ethnic strife or a political coup or an earthquake or other disaster.
A young man Luke Thomas, a former refugee from Liberia is our tour leader. He states that lived in a tent for six months in Baso, separated from his family, after fleeing his strife-torn village in the south of the country. He is a water and sanitation worker with MSF. There are at least three groups taking tours simultaneously. We are shown the refugee tents, equipment and utensils that are currently being used by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Regugees) in both tropical and temperate areas — Kossovo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Chechnya, Congo, East Timor, Sri Lanka and more than 30 other hotspots around the world.
At the start of our tour we are each given a ‘Refugee Passport’ that gives us entry into the camp. I am assigned to ‘tent 95.’ If I lost my passport I would not be given food or shelter, if this were a real refugee camp in Eritrea or Afghanistan. We get a chance to handle tin water cups fashioned from discarded food cans and note the sacks of food rations distributed by the World Food Program, gifts from USAID and the UK. We are offered samples of a delicious high protein biscuit, made in Denmark, that is supplied in many camps to refugees when they arrive.
I ask MSF worker Nicolas Beaudovin whether the UN has been helpful in arranging the refugee touring exhibit, which is scheduled to visit several US and Canadian cities. He replied “We are doing their work. The only thing that the UN lady” — who shall remain anonymous, but I will be calling her later this week — “was interested in was could she make a speech.”
My own last three weeks at the UN would confirm Beaudovin’s pessimism. Clearly, the world body has to do more and do better in every arena of its operations. Speeches, press conferences, reports, shopping trips and glittering dinners will neither stop refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from fleeing their homes nor help them speedily to return. Not to mention the reasons underlying the refugees’ dislocation – poverty, political corruption, denial of human rights among other factors. The representatives to the UN Millennium Summit, now concluded, must address these challenges. Better yet let them support, or get out of the way of people-to-people peace and progress initiatives. The people’s business cannot wait for another millennium.