Teaching international humanitarian law and values to secondary school students
KOBI-RENÉE LEINS[*] reports on a unique method of helping students to understand what it means to be a displaced person, asylum seeker or refugee.
An International Red Cross Youth Conference was held in Darwin from 12 to 17 September 2002. The aim of the conference was to examine and explore options and resources for educating 13 to 17 year-old-students about international humanitarian law and values.
As well as covering international humanitarian law — that is, the law of armed conflict, or the rules of war that aim to protect those who play no active part in the conflict — the conference challenged our thinking about humanitarian values.
One goal of the conference was for participants to structure a class for school students on these themes. Our group chose to elucidate the differences in definition between internally displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees, and to understand why, in law, the differences are important.
Our response was to create a refugee ‘game’ in which students started in a hypothetical ‘Australia’, demarcated by ropes. The students were given cards that designated them as a particular family member, such as a mother, a child or a grandmother. The cards also contained details such as language skills and level of education. Each person had a few minutes to make themselves familiar with other family members, and each of their roles. We deliberately made the children begin in ‘Australia’, as we felt that it was important that they could relate to the situation in which the game cast them.
A narrator began by telling the students that Australia was in drought, and therefore half the people were internally displaced. As circumstances in the story unfolded, the ropes were moved accordingly.
Soon after, we told the children that there had been an attack from another country, and everyone had to leave. The aim of the game was to try to get to other countries (also marked by ropes). To do so involved negotiating with the ‘government’ of each country to gain residence.
The many international delegates at the conference played the role of the ‘governments’ — speaking to the children trying to gain entry to their ‘country’ in foreign languages, which could not be understood. This added the dimension of alienation and frustration for the kids playing the game. They confronted great difficulties making themselves understood, and even greater difficulties in obtaining ‘residence’.
If the ‘government’ wished, they could call in the ‘United Nations’, who roamed the floor with the much-coveted refugee cards.
The ‘Red Cross’ acted as the humanitarian relief agency, handing out sweets and passing on correspondence between the isolated parties.
To create a sense of urgency, anyone who was outside a country (the demarcated rope countries) for more than 15 seconds was forced to continue the journey hopping on one leg. No-one could stay in the ‘water’.
If countries did not like the look of people (one ‘government official’ only wanted women in his country), they could make them remove their shoes. Children with no shoes were detained and had no recourse to challenge their detention other than a request to the government to contact the UN.
At various stages of the game we paused to gauge the kids’ reactions, how they were feeling within the role-play. One girl became quite distraught, isolated from her mother character. Another presumed he was quite happy — until he realised that he could not make contact with any of his family.
Thus, in a one-hour session, we tried to simulate for the children the experience of being a displaced person, refugee or asylum seeker. (We discovered after the conference that the Finnish Red Cross runs a similar ‘asylum seeker’ game — except that theirs lasts for 24 hours over a much larger area.)
Successful role-playing can create a sense of empathy and engagement where endless discussion and debate fails. The ability of a simple game to educate rather than politicise an issue — and an issue often misunderstood — is truly amazing.
Australian Red Cross wishes to expand its teaching and information programs in schools. If you are interested in becoming involved as a volunteer or in the implementation of a program at your school, please ring the Australian Red Cross on 1800 246 850 and ask for the International Humanitarian Law Department or email: schoolprojects@nat. redcross.org.au.
[*] Kobi-Renée Leins is an articled clerk with Deacons.