Join us in our 65th Anniversary

How a Japanese Leader Transformed the World's View on Refugees

Jun 18, 2023
10 min read

2021 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, Southeast Asia

World Refugee Day gives us reason to pause and reflect on the efforts of Ramon Magsaysay Awardee from Japan SADAKO OGATA, the first and, thus far, only female to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). From 1991 through 2000, this highly esteemed Japanese academic and diplomat courageously and tirelessly led the global organization established by the UN General Assembly in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War. Simply put, the mandate of the UN’s Refugee Agency is to protect, assist, and help find durable solutions for persons who have been forced to flee conflict and persecution. Initially, its work focused almost exclusively on refugees—persons who have been forced to cross an international border owing to a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Now, it also extends its services to asylum seekers and stateless persons.

Madame Ogata recognized this means being where refugees are found, leading her to personally undertake missions to the then most complex situations in the world, boldly inserting her 5-foot self in the midst of some highly dangerous environments, repeatedly challenging the conventional thinking, constantly demanding new ideas about better ways forward, and calling for innovative approaches, to protect the people and pursue genuine solutions, not simply quick fixes.
Photo of Sadako Ogata at the
UNHCR Office

Over time, thanks in part to the visionary leadership of Madame Ogata and her recognition of the importance of prevention, the efforts of UNHCR expanded to include internally displaced persons (IDPs), meaning those who have, despite conflict and persecution, remained within their own country, either by choice or just because it is impossible to flee to another country.

Firmly committed to the security and advancement of vulnerable people, especially to those affected by conflict, Madame Ogata continued to challenge the status quo and provided transformative leadership at the global level as the President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) from 2003 to 2012. At JICA, she pushed for a new way of thinking and acting, specifically in Human Security, calling for greater efforts to protect and empower vulnerable populations.

She demonstrated, by personal example, the benefits of direct engagement with conflict-affected populations, including armed non-state actors, and promoted collaboration between the traditionally development-oriented workforce of JICA, humanitarian actors on the ground, and those working at high levels to forge peace. The impact of Madame Ogata’s efforts at JICA, perhaps influenced by her own experience in Japan during World War II, has outlived her. JICA’s primary mission is advancing human security and its vision is “a free, peaceful, and prosperous world where people can hope for a better future and explore their diverse potentials”.

Sadako Ogata and Steve Muncy talking behind the scenes after the "Human Displacement in the Decades to Come: Meeting the Needs of Refugees" lecture. The leadership provided by Madame Ogata—and the example of courage and rigor that she set—profoundly impacted the development of Community and Family Services International (CFSI), which was conceptualized and established in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in 1981. Her imprint on CFSI is seen in the Organization’s commitment to vigorously protect and promote human security—specifically the lives, well-being, and dignity of uprooted persons—as well as in its highly participatory, empowering, community-based approach. It is also reflected in the types of situations in which CFSI intervenes and the collaborative manner in which CFSI works with others, including the affected populations and partners, such as UNHCR and JICA.

I had the great privilege and pleasure of engaging directly with Madame Ogata on several occasions during her decade at UNHCR, as well as during her leadership of JICA. Two of the most personally meaningful interactions occurred in Manila, Philippines, where I am based.
In August 1997, it was announced that Madame Ogata would be presented with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. On 7 January 1998, she delivered in Manila the lecture that is expected when one receives this prestigious award. Her topic was “Human Displacement in the Decades to Come: Meeting the Needs of Refugees”. I was one of three persons asked to formally respond to this speech.

Ogata began with a quick summary of major ongoing humanitarian emergencies in various parts of the world and some relevant global trends. She noted, for example, that the number of persons for whom UNHCR was responsible when she became High Commission had risen from 17 million to “nearly 23 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights”.
Steve Muncy speaking as one of the panelists during the "Human Displacement in the Decades to Come: Meeting the Needs of Refugees" lecture.

She then focused on Southeast Asia, citing successful refugee-related initiatives in the Region over the previous decades and urged building on this positive experience to address, as well as prevent, forced displacement. Towards these ends, she called for (1) strengthening compliance with national commitments to international standards for refugee protection and convincing more countries in the Region to sign the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the related 1967 Protocol;(2) devoting greater attention to solving existing refugee situations and preventing new ones from developing with the latter requiring the upholding—rather than violation—of fundamental human rights by states; and (3) strong collaboration and partnerships involving a wider range of stakeholders, including regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and multilateral financial institutions, to “achieve an integrated strategy based upon protection, solutions, and prevention”.

In this context, Madame Ogata announced that the prize money from the Magsaysay Award would be used to construct two community centers in Rakhine State, Myanmar that would provide literacy education and vocational training for Muslim women. All this, she announced, with technical assistance provided by CFSI. This marked the beginning of CFSI activity in Myanmar which has thus far benefitted hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of women, children, and men.

Inspired by her continued efforts on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable, in 2006, CFSI invited Madame Ogata—then President of JICA—to serve as the Keynote Speaker for a regional workshop and dinner organized in Manila to mark the 25th Anniversary of CFSI. We also saw this as an opportunity to thank her for her influence on CFSI. She kindly agreed and it was a wonderful experience for the Board and Staff, as well as partners, supporters, and friends of CFSI. Lots of photos were taken and many memory books were filled with lines from her thought-provoking speech and powerful call to action.

But for me, the most significant gesture made by Madame Ogata during that visit to the Philippines, graciously organized and supported by JICA, was above and beyond CFSI. Once again, she raised the bar higher for all of us working to address and prevent forced displacement in Mindanao, reminding us by her example of self in service of others to think bigger and act more boldly. How did she do this? By traveling early in the morning after her arrival from Tokyo the previous afternoon, to the conflict-affected area of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, something very few diplomats were bold enough to do at that point in time, owing to major security concerns. There she met with the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other key stakeholders to demonstrate her strong support for the peace process between the Government of the Philippines and the MILF and to convey the commitment of the Government of Japan to contribute towards peace and development in Mindanao. A comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2014 and Japan remains a major force for good in Mindanao.

Twenty-five years after her Magsaysay Award lecture urging strengthened protection, investments in prevention, and greater collaborative effort, more than 108 million persons, globally, are recognized as forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution. Seventy-six percent (76%) of them are hosted by low and middle-income countries. Roughly 28% are refugees who have sought and/or obtained asylum in other countries. More than 60 million (56%) are internally displaced persons.

Were she still with us, I am more than sure that Madame Ogata would be on the frontlines, courageously speaking with and for the most vulnerable, challenging us to think outside the box, and working day and night to help formulate measures to strengthen protection and foster solutions, temporary as well as permanent. She would be calling on all of us to recognize that “people are what matters most”, acknowledging that “solving refugee problems takes time”, and reminding us that “our collective efforts can turn the terror and pain of exile into the safety and unity of family and friends”. Let us carry on, inspired by Sadako Ogata, the first female, Japanese, academic United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and while we are at it, begin the work required to see the second female in this role when next the post becomes vacant.

SADAKO OGATA was the first woman and first Japanese to lead the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHRC). In 1997, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s premier prize and highest honor, for “her invoking the moral authority of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to insist that behind the right of every refugee to asylum lies the greater right of every person to remain at home in peace.” OGATA passed away on October 22, 2019, at the age of 92.

STEVEN MUNCY is the Founder and Executive Director of the Community and Family Services International (CFSI), an NGO committed to peace and social development, with a particular interest in the psychosocial dimension. He received the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award for “his unshakable belief in the goodness of man that inspires in others the desire to serve; his life-long dedication to humanitarian work, refugee assistance, and peace building; and his unstinting pursuit of dignity, peace, and harmony for people in exceptionally difficult circumstances in Asia.”

“Striving for Human Security”. September 2015, Nos. 1 and 2, Vol. LII, The United Nations at 70.