The Daily Davos

The Street Theater from Hell

"Where are your papers? Hands against the wall!" The UNHCR gives CEOs a chance to be refugees.

01.26.12 3:42 PM ET

Others may offer cocktail parties, lunches and dinners at Davos, but each year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tries to give the assembled global elite a taste of hell. Executives who volunteer for the experience -- and there are scores of them -- cross what looks like a crude police barrier between the snow drifts and suddenly find themselves living the lives of people who are homeless, stateless and bereft not only of their possessions but of their futures. As street theater, this brief, intense "simulation" is convincing enough to be disconcerting. I found myself buying a crust of bread with my glasses, and having guards roust me out of a tent at night to shake me down and steal my watch. But the fact is, this show pales by comparison with the brutalization most of the world's 43.3 million refugees have experienced as they flee their homes into the hands of governments that are at best only grudgingly hospitable and at worst downright savage. In most cases, the only real refuge, and the only real hope for these people, lies with the UNHCR, but even in the best-run camps, they may enter a kind of limbo that lasts, on average, a dozen years before they can return home or be resettled permanently in a third country.