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Norwegians send kids to fake refugee camps for lesson in empathy

UNHCR / G. Gubaeva

Norwegian teens are heading to fake refugee camps to get a better sense of what refugees go through. 

The camps try to simulate conditions that refugees experience over a 24 hour period. Throughout the day and night, participants are crammed into tight spaces, provided little food and water and surrounded by sounds of sirens and other disruptions. In the middle of the night, the kids are jarred from sleep to flee an "attack" and run through frigid temperatures to a safe location. 

The camps also attempt to show bureaucratic struggles. On top of all the exhaustion and suffering, refugees often have to go through labrynthine processes to receive asylum, housing, work permits, travel permits, etc. etc.

At the end of the experience, attendees probably feel some mixture of exhaustion, bewilderment and annoyance. Through these emotions, empathy can emerge. 

Ultimately, such a simulation has limitations. After all, one of the worst parts of being a refugee is the uncertainty, not knowing when or if safety will ever arrive. Also, one day of pretend can't capture months and years of actual suffering.

But the exercise feeds the imagination, brings participants a little closer to an understanding of the plight of refugees and sparks conversation and action. 

So far, more than 80,000 Norwegians have attended such camps and another 5,000 go each year. Through this broad public engagement, refugee organizations hope to foster an open-mindedness that counters the fear and anxiety pervading Europe during the current refugee crisis.

Recently, Europe reached a deal with Turkey to begin formally rejecting and deporting refugees. It's the latest chapter in a grim saga of denigrating the world's most vulnerable. As my colleague Yosola wrote, "The outcome of these negotiations has resulted in a morally dubious one-in-one-out policy that is more appropriate for students outside a cramped nightclub than people fleeing war and suffering."

Images of refugees crammed into boats and stuck behind fences, waiting and hoping for reprieve, are common. They've been plastered across social media for much of the past year as the Syrian refugee crisis gained international recognition.

But beyond the flickers of sadness these scenes evoke, do they leave lasting impressions of empathy? Do they move the audience to action? Or do people just scroll past, the sheer scale of images seen daily diminishing the impact of any single image?

It's hard to say.

Either way, it seems clear that a more tangible and extended experience designed to create empathy would have a greater effect on people. Perhaps if compassion was more widely triggered and sustained, indifference to refugees would be less common.

What would happen if people could get a more visceral and immediate understanding of refugees? Would countries suddenly become more welcoming?

A crop of virtual reality technology is trying to make this immediacy possible and there are countless storytellers across mediums who are changing minds .

Norway's fake refugee camps might be an even more effective way to promote compassion. But to be truly effective, more of the country would have to sign up to experience the hardship and there would have to be more sustained forms of engagement. 

For example, camps could be in every kid's education as part of regular lessons on refugees. 

By normalizing the idea of refugees and making awareness of them a part of everyday life, it could counter and stop the apparent panic that accompanies every surge of refugees. With less national panic, more citizens and nations would be comfortable performing their moral duty to help.