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Yumiko Takashima, Exective Direstor of Japan Association for UNHCR

This month’s Close UP features Japan Association for UNHCR, an official agency for assisting the activities of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Since its establishment in October 2000, the association has been performing various roles to support publicity and fundraising activities of UNHCR in close coordination with the UNHCR Representation in Japan to expand a circle of support in Japan for refugees around the world. For this interview, we spoke to Yumiko Takashima, who was assigned to the exective directorof the association last year after her ten years in helping refugees as a UNHCR officer, and asked her about UNHCR’s commitment to help refugees as well as the roles of Japan Association for UNHCR.

Can you explain about the organization of UNHCR?

©UNHCR/E. Hockstein

A. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was established in 1950 as an organization of the United Nations for supporting refugees around the world. UNHCR has two main missions; one is to protect people who are not protected by their country, that is, people who have had to leave their country and became refugees. For people who had to run away from home with literally no personal belongings, we secure them in a safe place and support them by providing them with necessary materials and services. This is what you may often hear about as “refugee camps.” UNHCR’s other mission is to find ways to help refugees in becoming non-refugees. What refugees wish for the most is to return home after peace is restored in their country. When the situation does not allow them to do so, however, it is an important job of UNHCR to help them find optional solutions such as permanently living in a country where they are sheltered or moving to a third country to start a new life.

How do you define refugees?

©UNHCR / S.Schulman

A. Refugees are people who had to leave their home due to regional conflicts and wars and have evacuated to neighbor nations. Some refugees may fortunately return home after the situations become better, but about one fourth of all refugees are forced to stay in shelters for five or more years. There are also domestic refugees, who have to live in shelters within their own country. UNHCR supports domestic refugees as well since those people are not protected by their own country either. I imagine more Japanese people are now aware of how tough it is to be forced to leave home and live somewhere else after seeing a number of victims who have to live in shelters away from home after the disaster in March.

What kind of support do you provide at the refugee camp?

A.We first provide emergency assistance so that refugees' lives are protected and their least basic living needs are covered before starting further support for their future independence. Children receive education, and adults receive job training. It is one of the biggest challenges for UNHCR to keep especially young refugees hopeful for their future while there is no promise that those people could eventually get out of their life as a refugee. We have organized youth clubs, opened libraries for self-study, and offered sports activities, but it has not been enough.

What do you find most difficult in supporting refugees?

©UNHCR / S.Siritheerajesd

A.First of all, the absolute number of refugees is considerably high. For example, over 400,000 refugees from Somalia are currently sheltered in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, which is one of the world's largest refugee camps. Also, it becomes very difficult to keep the attention and support of the global society when the situation persists for a long time, such as 10 years or even 20 years, despite that many supports are offered right after incidents such as conflicts or natural disasters. Additionally, it poses another big challenge that about four fifth of the nations where the refugees are taken and sheltered are developing countries. A number of refugees flee to neighbor countries which themselves are already suffering from poverty and harsh natural environment, therefore putting both refugees and recipient countries into a tougher situation. This is why continued support by other nations around the world and their acceptance of refugees as the third countries are much needed today. Last fall, as an initial project in Asia, Japan accepted Myanmar refugees from Thailand as permanent residences. A total of about ninety refugees are planned to be moved to Japan in three years from 2010 to 2012. The number is still small compared to 70,000 refugees taken by the United States last year, but it should be regarded as the first step of progress for our country.

What would you consider very important as a provider of refugee support?

A.I think it is very important to work together with refugees while helping them exercise their own skills and abilities as much as possible. When we confront a situation in the camp, we try to solve a situation together in a creative way by exchanging ideas with refugee people. Doing everything for them does not help them become independent in the future, and we are in fact quite limited to what we can do for them. We also hear many refugees saying they want a job rather than a support. It is easy to understand that they all want to rebuild their lives on their own. UNHCR's role is to help them realize that. As a recipient country of refugees, it is important for Japan to offer support along with respect to refugees as the same human being and also with a cooperative environment toward improving together.

What were some of your strong impressions you had when you were directly working with refugees?

©UNHCR / J. Matthews

A.Refugees have lost everything they had, from their assets to social status, all at once. Although they are certainly being put in the toughest situation as a human being, they have never lost their deep compassion for others. When I visited the disaster area of the East Japan Great Earthquake, I found the same strength and compassion among victims who also have lost everything. Refugee people may look weak and helpless, but they are actually very strong people with established self-esteem who have gone through so many experiences.

Can you share your favorite episode with us?

A.I attended a group of South Sudan refugees returning home after living in the camp in Kakuma, Kenya for more than 20 years. At first, they were enjoying their ride on the bus singing and chatting, but as they passed the national border and approached their home village, they became silent. And, when they finally arrived in their village, everybody burst into tears--not only adults but their children who were born in the camp and had never lived in their home village. It made me realize how much it really meant to them to be able to come back home.

What aspect do you think is making the refugee issue difficult to be solved?

A.What is making the situation difficult is that it really depends on the politics whether refugee people continue to be refugees or not. Unfortunately, this is the 60th anniversary year of UNHCR since its establishment. We consider it unfortunate because our goal is that there will be no more refugees in the world and our jobs will no longer be needed. The work of UNHCR is like a bandage, which may be helpful to temporarily stop bleeding but will not cure the root cause of bleeding. Unless political issues are solved, refugees will stay as refugees no matter how much support materials or support we provide or how hard we work to protect their human rights.

Can you tell us more about roles that the Japan Association for UNHCR plays?

A.The Japan Association for UNHCR’s main role is to conduct PR activities to increase the recognition and support for the work of UNHCR from the general public as well as businesses and organizations. We use various tools and creative ideas to help people view the refugee issues as a closer problem to themselves as possible. We hold the UNHCR Refugee Film Festival every October, which will mark its 6th year in 2011. This year, the festival will feature masterpieces selected from the programs of the past festivals and will be held at 20 locations nationwide, so I hope many people will come and enjoy the good movies about refugees. In addition, we have been running an advertisement campaign with support of AC Japan, and the catch phrase for this year’s campaign is “Five letters of hope for refugees: UNHCR.” Many people in Japan still don’t know about UNHCR or even how to pronounce it. We hope the campaign will help more people become aware of our name.

©Japan Association for UNHCR


©Japan Association for UNHCR


How can we support the activities of UNHCR through Japan Association for UNHCR?

©Japan Association for UNHCR

A.Refugees in the shelters need continued support. The Japan Association for UNHCR is therefore asking its supporters to join a monthly donation program and make the same amount of donations every month. The more continued support we receive, the steadier our support activities will become, allowing UNHCR to promote school education, job training, homecoming, and other projects that require a long-term financial plan. To increase the understanding and support for the purpose of our activities, we run a campaign called Shelter Project, for which we visit shopping malls and public facilities and directly communicate with visitors about the global refugee problems and what UNHCR is doing for them.

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

At her office in Minami Aoyama

A.In your usual days, I want you to try to communicate with people who look a bit different from yourselves rather than avoiding them. I am asking this because my hope is that there will be more Japanese people feeling comfortable to make communications with refugee people rather than differentiating them because of their different colors of skin or hair from Japanese, as this country is getting ready to welcome more refugee people in the future as a third country. If you are young, I want you go overseas and visit other countries. While traveling foreign nations, you will begin to understand that we all are the same human being at bottom and will start enjoying differences as you meet other people. As each of us becomes open and prepared to accept others, we as members of civil society are preparing for our country to become an advanced country in accepting refugees.