With battlefield simulation, UN refugee agency trains emergency response teams

With battlefield simulation, UN refugee agency trains emergency response teams

Emergency team trainees on the WEM course
With tank and mortars firing rounds nearby, there can be no mistakes in map reading for United Nations emergency refugee response team trainees as they undergo newly extended field simulation exercises to prepare for deployment anywhere in the world within 72 hours.

Aggressive military forces determined to turn away refugees are just one of the tests for participants at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Workshop for Emergency Management (WEM) as they learn to survive life-threatening security incidents, practice planning and managing a camp, provide first aid, and learn to deal with the media, all under front-line conditions.

Negotiation skills, radio communication procedures, four-wheel driving on rough terrain and using the global positioning system are all an integral part of the training in the nine-day WEM, as shown by the most recent workshop held this month in Schwabische Alb, Germany.

“It’s tougher on the participants because there’s no let up in the pressure as they move from one difficult situation to another and they have to get more involved and learn to perform as a team,” UNHCR emergency team trainer Andrei Kazakov said of the simulation phase which has recently been increased to two-and-a-half days from one day.

The most talked about elements of any WEM simulation are the security incidents, where participants find themselves in situations of life-threatening danger and have to know how to react.

“People who are aware of their patterns of dealing with crisis and understand the impact of their style or approach on others are less likely to behave in ways that create or escalate crises, than are those who are unaware,” UNHCR security trainer, Kjell Lauvik said.

“As individuals become aware of the way they tend to react in the stress of conflict, they can make choices to modify their behaviour in ways that help deal with crises and conflict more constructively,” he added.

There are three WEMs a year - held in Sweden, Norway and Germany - training around 40 participants each time over the nine days. The course in Germany is funded by the Government and Foreign Ministry and is run in close cooperation with the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief - the Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk (THW).

It is a major logistical exercise involving some 50 federal police, the German army, the German Red Cross and THW volunteers. While the simulation is tough going for participants who camped in tents beside the shooting range, it is the highlight for most people - where they put into practice what they have learned in the first part of the course.

“It gives the impression of a real situation. It alerts us and gives us mental preparedness. A lot of judgment is needed,” said Geneva-based Fatima Sherif-Nor, who was previously posted in eastern Sudan. “In a normal situation a team evolves over time, but in a very short time on the WEM you are expected to act in a team and that’s hard,” she added.

Learning to work together competently in a difficult environment is one of the main aims of the training. After completing the WEM, participants are put on UNHCR’s emergency roster for nine months, when they must be prepared to deploy to any emergency within 72 hours for up to three months.