Campaign highlights plight of present-day refugees by recalling dramatic communist-era escapes

Screenshot from the campaign video clip, photo: archive of UNHCR

A new campaign launched by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called “We ourselves were refugees” is attempting to show that the current refugee crisis, at its heart, is no different from when people in the former communist bloc tried to escape to freedom. Print, radio, and video clips retell dramatic escapes from the past, including that of a man who escaped Czechoslovakia with his little boy on a homemade hang-glider.

Screenshot from the campaign video clip,  photo: archive of UNHCR
A little earlier I spoke to the UNHCR’s Czech branch's Kristýna Andrlová about the campaign.

“The campaign itself is a reaction to the current debate in Czech society, which is huge. What we have tried to do is to raise awareness that once someone decides to flee their own country it is because they really often have little other choice, they are running for their lives. The second aspect we want to underline is that the refugee issue is not new to the Czech Republic or the former Czechoslovakia. In our rich history, we had experience with refugees and not that long ago were refugees ourselves.”

Is it a reminder? To appeal to peoples’ better nature given how ugly the debate has turned in some segments of society as well as politicians themselves?

“It is a sort of reminder but of course we don’t want to tell anyone what side of the debate to choose. What are hoping for is that the topic be looked at more rationally: that the topic exists and has existed and we know how to deal with the problem. We know how to help people in such situations, so what has changed?”

One of the stories focussed on is that of a Josef Hlavatý, who escaped in 1988… How did you choose his particular story, with so many to choose from?

Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“That was up to Young & Rubicam who certainly looked for extraordinary stories to tell of Czechoslovak people who decided to flee, no matter the consequences.”

Remarkably, he escaped using a kind of homemade hang-glider and what made it even more powerful was that he took his three-year-old son. What kind of reaction have you had to the campaign so far?

“They have been mixed but I think that positive reactions prevail. Detractors think that the circumstances have changed, that the world has changed and that the situation is different today. Even so, the principles of international protection – refugee protection – have not changed and this is something we should not forget.”