Japanese humanitarian Sadako Ogata was the first female to be appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Nicknamed “refugees’ champion” by BBC News, and “five-foot giant” by her UN colleagues, she will be remembered for her zeal to protect the ” defenceless and dispossessed” during her time in the role from 1991 to 2000.
Harvard Law had the following to say: “distinguished as one of the top 10 most influential women in the world during that time, most of Ogata’s negotiating on behalf of the world’s dispossessed was low-profile and unheralded, conducted in a vigorous, hands-on manner that often placed her in harm’s way on the front lines of conflict”.
Sadako’s effort to help Kurdish refugees who fled Iraq after the Gulf War and the Balkans War is worthy of commendation. This was reflected in her comments to the Japan Times in 2005 shortly after she took office “I didn’t really know what I was getting into, because what happened after I took up the office was very different from what everyone assumed would happen in the world,” Similarly, her international involvement in large-scale operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Great Lakes region of Africa cannot be ignored.
As the former dean and professor of the faculty of foreign studies at Sophia University in Tokyo in 1989, she wrote a book “The Turbulent Decade – Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s”. There she described “[The] UNHCR worked like fire brigades through all the continents of the world,”. She added, “My concern was always centred on providing security to the refugees and giving them opportunities to lead happier lives,”.
Condemning her country, Japan, in a 2015 Reuters interview, she said, “Japan has to set up a situation to welcome people… those who are in need, in serious need… I think we should be open to bringing them in,”. She oversaw Japan’s assistance in developing countries whilst she was head of the Japan International Agency withing 2003 to 2012.
A UNHCR staffer, Johan Cels, told the Japan Times “She would first listen to the refugees’ voices and then negotiate with local political leaders” as he described how caring Sadako was.
Also, the National Constitution Centre of the U.S. awarded her the Philadelphia Liberty Medal for “leadership in the pursuit of freedom”. They remarked, “There is no greater champion and activist on behalf of the refugees of the world than Mrs. Ogata,”.
Most importantly, in a 2015 UN article, she said “I have often been asked from where I draw my energy, I often think of all the refugees whom I met in camps, in villages, in reception centers, in shantytowns. I believe that what has kept me going is the conviction that our collective efforts can turn the terror and pain of exile into the safety and unity of family and friends.”
Judging by the massive increase in refugee numbers in this world full of conflicts, there is a great demand for more people like Sadako. As ome governments and politicians politicize this refugee crisis, there is all the more need for philanthropists, humanitarians and academics to rise and support refugees.
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