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Why Norwegian parents are sending their kids to live in fake refugee camps

Norwegian teens take part in a role-playing exercise as refugees this month at an old military camp in Trandum. (Fredrik Varfjell/AFP/Getty Images)

Norway has faced harsh criticism amid the recent influx of refugees into Europe. Sweden and Germany, for instance, have complained about the Scandinavian country's low acceptance rates. Norway also made headlines when it decided that refugees who had taken the Arctic route to cross into the country would be sent back to Russia.

Its tough stances initially surprised many,  particularly because Norway historically has been a role model and main destination for asylum seekers from countries ravaged by war or poverty.

But there's one group of Norwegians who might have been especially surprised — the tens of thousands who have experienced life as a refugee themselves in recent years, or at least pretended to for a day.

Every year, thousands of parents ask their children to live in fake refugee camps to get a feeling for the suffering millions of people experience. "The camp is supposed to give the teens a small insight and a feeling of how it is to be a refugee," said Kenneth Johansen, director of the organization Refugee Norway, which manages the project.

The organization aims to create an authentic atmosphere: Sirens can be heard in and around the camp. The teenagers are given only a minimum amount of food and must sleep in crowded residences on their imaginative journey from Sudan to Norway. In the middle of the night, an "attack" on the camp forces the participants to change locations amid temperatures around freezing, according to a recent description of life in the camp by Agence France-Presse.

"The outcome we hope for is to give the teens more perspective on the world and to show them how lucky they are to live in a peaceful country like Norway," Johansen said.

The experience is also supposed to show that it is not only extreme temperatures and exhaustion refugees are fighting but also bureaucracy and legal hurdles, even after they arrive in Europe. In January, Norwegians mourned the death of a refugee who had been stuck in asylum limbo for more than 25 years. The case illustrated the complicated world of asylum that is part of the camp experience.

(This refugee was stuck in legal limbo for 25 years. Then he died.)

"The teens get a feeling of how bureaucracies often work against them," Johansen said. He and his co-workers hope that by operating the camp they can make younger Norwegians more empathetic. "Many of the reactions we have gotten focus around how lucky [the participants] feel to live their privileged life in Norway."

Originally developed in Denmark in 1987, the idea of such camps quickly spread. In Norway, for instance, there are two similar projects. The organization Refugee Norway set up its first camp 12 years ago. So far, 80,000 Norwegian teenagers have spent 24 hours in the camp, an average of 5,000 people per year.

So why are Norwegians so enthusiastic about sending their children to such camps?

Many atheist Europeans go through a "civil confirmation" in their teenage years that gives them the opportunity to participate in workshops aimed at making them ready for adult life. In Norway, participation in the refugee camp is mandatory for anyone who wants a civil confirmation, which is seen as a step toward adulthood. However, it is not only atheist teenagers who participate. "We also have youngsters from Christian Confirmation and [Christian] schools in Norway on the camp," Johansen said.

The organization stresses that it does not use the camp to advocate for refugees or to make political statements. "We don't discuss political questions or aspects with the teens," Johansen said.

However, in some cases, the camp might have opened some minds. "We get feedback from the teens, and some of them say that the participation in the camp changed their opinion on some of the aspects around refugees," he said.

At times, the adventure can be quite realistic: The 24-hour experience starts near a real detention center for refugees facing deportation.