Australia’s first ever simulated refugee camp opens in Melbourne

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 18 Feb 2008

MELBOURNE – Australia’s first ever simulated refugee camp opens to the public today in Melbourne. It will give visitors a chance to experience some of the harsh realities faced by millions of people around the world whose lives are affected by war and conflict.
‘Refugee Realities is an experience for all Australians,’ said Stephanie Cousins, Project Coordinator, Oxfam Australia. ‘It is a unique experience and one that will help visitors understand the dangers many refugees endure in their search for safety.’
Twelve months in the making, Refugee Realities is an interactive exhibition that puts members of the public in the position of a refugee or internally displaced person. The project, the first of its kind in Australia, invites visitors to consider the journey of being a refugee, navigate a mine field, collect food and water to survive, build shelters, understand family separation as well as explore a refugee camp and register for humanitarian assistance.
Oxfam is sharing this extraordinary experience with the Australian community to help raise awareness of the hardships endured by some of the 34 million people around the world who have been displaced by war and conflict.
‘Refugee camps are not comfortable places. Some camps as big as small cities where up to 6,000 people die everyday from cholera and other diseases,’ said Ms Cousins. ‘Drinking water and food are almost always scarce, and you might find one toilet is shared by five hundred people,’ she added.
Oxfam aid workers and former refugees like Mawien Koul advised on the construction of the camp drawing on their own real life experiences fleeing homes, crossing international borders and living in makeshift conditions. Mr Kuol is a refugee from Southern Sudan now settled Melbourne. In 1982, aged five years old, he fled into the night with his mother when cattle raiders came and destroyed their village. After three weeks of walking, he crossed the border into Ethiopia.
‘I was unable to walk or stand the following morning. Some of my friends had to assist me to stand,’ said Mr Kuol. He went to the Dima Refugee Camp where he stayed for one year, before he was forced to flee to a nearby hospital. ‘I escaped Dima refugee camp at night with my half brother, cousin and nephew. We walked only at night through the bush. There were wild animals such as lions and tigers. We had no drinking water and I was sick with malaria but had no medicines.’ Mr Kuol stayed in the hospital for three months before walking the road back to Sudan and fleeing to Kenya. For the next 9 years, he travelled from camp to camp seeking shelter and safety before finally having the opportunity to resettle in Australia with his three children and wife, Veronica.
Refugee Realities is modelled on camps in Sudan, Kenya, Burma and Pakistan, where refugees spend an average of 17 years before finding a place to call home. At Refugee Realities members of the public can also attend events including lectures, film screenings and cultural activities. Refugee Realities also provides guided tours for school groups. Already 3,000 school students from Victoria are booked to visit the camp.
‘Obviously we’re not going to put people through the trauma that refugees often experience, but Refugee Realities emulates some of the hardships that millions of refugees face every day,’ said Steph Cousins.
In order to make the camp as authentic as possible, Australian Red Cross, UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and RedR have also advised on the project. Refugee Realities has involved around three hundred volunteers, some of whom are former refugees.
Refugee Realities runs from 22 February to 13 March at Melbourne’s Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park. It’s open daily 10am – 6pm by gold coin donation.
For more information visit the Refugee Realities website.
For a media pack or to arrange an interview with Stephanie Cousins or a former refugee living in Australia contact Melany Markham on 0407 515 559 or