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Why so few takers of the refugee experience at Davos?

The Refugee Run allows the rich and powerful to act as a refugee – and hopefully gain a greater understanding of their plight. But few have participated this year

Richard Branson has done it. So has Jimmy Wales. But this year none of the big names attending the gathering of the power elite at Davos have made the 10-minute walk up the hill to pretend to be a refugee.

Despite more having been said from inside the hall about social equality and injustice than ever before, just a smattering of executives from hi-tech firms have visited Refugee Run, as has the wife of the head of Forbes. One of the people who told me to go wouldn’t tell me what happens there as “that would spoil the fun” – adding to the sense that this is just one more instance of poverty porn for the rich. But most of those attending when I did on Friday were youngish, wearing jumpers rather than suits, and worked for NGOs or social enterprises.

The event itself, which ends with real refugees talking of their own experiences, leaves many in tears. One man, who now works with refugees, tells how he was forced into being a child soldier.

Within minutes of being thrown into darkness and surrounded by men with torches and guns, it’s impossible not to feel moved and terrified. There’s the noise and the smell of gunpowder, and horrible human dilemmas. Of course you know it’s staged, but it makes the words of people who have really suffered carry even more weight. Melissa Fleming of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says: “The reason we are here is that these people have tremendous amounts of financial and political power. We represent the most vulnerable and voiceless people.”

This is the fourth year that Refugee Run has been at Davos. In previous years some 10% of the 2,500 delegates have attended, and on Friday night organisers were still hoping many more would. But why so few big names? Sally Begbie, director of Crossroads, a joint partner with the UNHCR on the programme, says: “Davos is so busy. We’ve asked them all but an hour is a long time. Some big politicians say they’ll come but then they have to meet the head of a bank or another country.”

At Refugee Run they keep the setting of the experience vague, saying it’s somewhere in “central Asia”. Back inside the centre, where they serve small rolls with delicious fillings and free drinks all day, I overhear one well-turned out woman being asked what she was hearing this year. “That Asia is a big story,” she replies without missing a beat. “People talk about China, but it’s so much more.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds