On most weekends, the plaza surrounding the famous Hachiko dog statue outside Shibuya Station is thronged with people. However, the popular Tokyo rendezvous point last Saturday hosted an emergency tent where people in bright blue T-shirts tried to raise awareness ahead of June 20 — the 18th annual observance of World Refugee Day.
In addition to the refugee tent, the Hachiko statue was adorned with a bright blue sash — the color of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — to draw public attention to refugee issues.
Initiated by the Tokyo office of the U.N. agency, the one-day awareness-raising campaign, supported by Shibuya Ward and local companies, marked a departure from the UNHCR’s usual custom of holding World Refugee Day symposiums for the past five years. The change was brought about by the Tokyo representative’s strong desire to engage new audiences.
“World Refugee Day is a global celebration of refugee courage and resilience, and it should be a show of solidarity by people. I thought that our public action would actually reach out to new audiences who have never thought about refugees, or who may have never even heard about the work of UNHCR,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the U.N. body’s Tokyo office, in an interview with The Japan Times before the Shibuya event.
“So, at Shibuya crossing, where this massive crowd of people gathers, we want to get 30 seconds, two minutes, or five minutes — if possible — of their attention,” he said.
At the event, anyone could enter the tent, which can accommodate a family of five, and touch the pots, lamps and other daily items commonly used by refugees.
Photos of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh taken by photographer Junji Naito were projected on the interior to help participants imagine their circumstances.
The 18.5-sq.-meter tent is an emergency shelter designed to provide enough space to stand upright in every corner, and to be divided into two separate sections to increase privacy and safety. They are already in use in Pakistan and Burkina Faso, according to UNHCR.
Hebecker said the selection of Shibuya — a haunt favored by young people — as the venue was based on his strong desire to show youth what life as a refugee is really like.
“Syria, South Sudan to a certain extent, and the Rohingya situation have all received certain attention in media, but younger people tend to consume news through social media, where exposure to refugee issues may be even less,” Hebecker said.
To increase awareness among youth, the UNHCR urged people who stopped by the tent to post selfies at #WithRefugees via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
They were also encouraged to sign petitions for three proposals to be included in the Global Compact on Refugees, a statement expected to be adopted in September to strengthen the international response to refugee situations.
The three proposals are:
To ensure all refugee children have access to education.
To ensure all refugee families can live in security
To arrange environments where refugees can contribute to society through opportunities for learning new skills.
Shidax Corp., the caterer and karaoke chain, agreed to donate ¥50 per signature to the UNHCR from Saturday to Wednesday. This is equivalent to the price of one pack of dietary supplements the U.N. agency provides to malnourished children.
Kaho Horibe, a University of Tsukuba student who stopped by the event with her friend, praised the tent display.
“It was smaller than I thought, but the pots exhibited inside were really functional. I wish that this kind of event would spread more,” she said.
Inspiring a sense of global responsibility among the visitors was another of Hebecker’s objectives.
“We want to touch the hearts and minds of people who are preoccupied with their daily problems. We understand everybody is busy with education and finding a job . . . but all these things are happening under the very protected environment in Japan — which is a very advanced country with an advanced economy where people do not have to worry as much as refugees, who may not even have clear future,” he said.
Two organizations that track refugees are the UNHCR and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
According to the UNHCR, about 16.2 million people were newly displaced by conflicts and persecution in 2017, bringing the total to 68.5 million, up for the fifth consecutive year.
Of the 25.4 million so-called mandate refugees registered with the UNHCR and UNRWA, more than 50 percent are under 18.
Japan, one of the signatories to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, donated more than $152 million to the UNHCR in 2017, becoming the fourth-biggest donor after the United States, Germany and the European Union — despite being notorious for its strict refugee-screening system that granted asylum to only 20 refugees last year.
“Refugees have been driven from their homes by war, other conflicts, human rights violations, and persecution. They are unable to return, unable to have normal lives and struggle to make their ends meet. To re-establish a sense of hope and some purpose in their lives, we still need lots of support from the international communities, including from Japan,” Hebecker said.