Our History

Sue Morton witnesses thousands of Cambodian refugees forced back across the Thai border and resolves to found Refugees International. Volunteers in Tokyo persuade world leaders at the first G-7 Summit to consider the Indochinese refugee crisis. Sue and a few volunteers and refugees stand vigil at the White House. President Jimmy Carter announces that he will order the U.S. Navy to rescue the Vietnamese “boat people” at sea. “I cannot let your people die,” he tells RI’s supporters. 

Pressure from RI volunteers leads the Thai government to set up a screening program for 80,000 Lao and Hmong refugees who fled during the Vietnam War instead of forcing them back to Laos.

Refugees International receives the Volunteer Action Award from President Reagan for inspiring volunteerism in communities across the United States.

RI mobilizes U.S. and international public opinion to protest and reverse the Thai government’s rejection of Vietnamese refugees arriving on their shores.

Lionel Rosenblatt becomes President of Refugees International. RI expands its work outside Southeast Asia and undertakes missions to Guinea, on behalf of Liberian refugees, and the Iraq-Jordan border to call for the rescue of 150,000 Kuwaiti and other "hostages of the desert."

While standing at the Iraq-Turkey border, RI sparks world attention to the plight of Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein. RI greets Secretary of State Baker and calls for their rescue through TV appearances and full-page newspaper ads. This helps stimulate a massive and unprecedented U.S. military rescue mission for the Kurds.

Philanthropist George Soros asks RI to advise on the expenditure of $50 million of aid for Bosnia. RI recommends funding expert Fred Cuny’s innovative programs to rebuild besieged Sarajevo's water, gas, and electric utilities.

RI’s early assessment of Burmese Muslim refugees in Bangladesh leads to rapid deployment of UNHCR personnel and $3 million in U.S. aid.

Through numerous media interviews, RI urges U.S. and NATO air support for the Srebrenica enclave and other so-called UN “safe-havens” and better security for UN relief convoys in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Joan Baez accompanies RI to perform among Sarajevans under siege.

RI files the first reports from Tanzania of 250,000 refugees fleeing the genocide in Rwanda. A few months later, RI President Lionel Rosenblatt reports from Zaire (now DR Congo) on the exodus of nearly 2 million Rwandans who lack clean water and other assistance. Rushing back to Washington, Lionel provides first-hand accounts of the catastrophe and successfully calls for expanded relief efforts and a humanitarian airlift by the U.S. military into Zaire. On the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Robin MacNeil credits RI’s advocacy for triggering the increased assistance. 

Within two weeks of an RI campaign to stem a food crisis in Central Africa, the World Food Program receives $100 million from governments to fight hunger among Rwandan refugees in Tanzania and Zaire.

RI provides unequaled coverage of several hundred thousand Rwandan refugees who have fled to the forests of eastern Congo and are suffering and dying from disease, lack of food and water, and violence. RI’s media campaign and testimony to Congress result in emergency aid for these “lost refugees.”

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke becomes Chair of RI’s Board of Directors.

While on the scene in Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, RI gives an early warning of the Kosovo crisis and calls for NATO military action to halt Serbian depredations. NATO acts in the spring of 1999 after nearly a million Kosovars have been displaced. 

RI publicizes atrocities, including mutilations, committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone. RI’s photos, video and interviews with the victims are published by The New York Times and other major outlets. Our reports stimulate international attention for a nearly forgotten conflict and its victims.


RI discovers that the UN Refugee Agency is repatriating Bunong (Phnong) refugees to Cambodia by leaving them on the side of a remote road with no means to go home. RI hires large trucks, procures mosquito nets and galvanizes emergency UN assistance. RI also helps revive the Bunong weaving tradition.

Refugees International suffers its worst tragedy in its 20-year history when Board members David and Penny McCall and European Representative Yvette Pierpaoli are killed in an automobile accident in Albania.

Refugees International Board Chair Richard Holbrooke becomes U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. AOL Founder James V. Kimsey is elected the new Chair of RI’s Board of Directors.

RI’s reports from Ethiopia and Eritrea are the first to inform the world that 1.5 million displaced Eritreans are in desperate need of food and other aid. Our advocacy leads the UN to request $87 million in emergency aid and the U.S. to donate 50,000 more tons of food.

After the September 11 attack on the U.S., RI’s early on-the-scene reporting, op-eds, and media interviews highlight the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and help generate a $320 million aid package from the U.S. 

Refugees International is a finalist for the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, one of the largest and most prestigious humanitarian awards, and WORTH Magazine names RI one of America's 100 best charities.  

Ken Bacon becomes president of RI, after serving more than six years as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Pentagon Spokesman.

As agencies prepare for the U.S. war in Iraq, RI works with peer organizations to successfully prompt the U.S. to provide $200 million in cash to the World Food Program for emergency food aid in the Middle East.

RI successfully urges the World Bank to support abducted women who had been forced to marry rebel soldiers in Angola. Hundreds of thousands of women receive funding and vocational training through a program to reintegrate former soldiers and their families into civilian life.

When the Thai government threatens to evict around 15,000 Hmong refugees who have been living in a Thai temple for years, RI successfully leads the call for the U.S. to significantly increase resettlement of the Hmong. 

On arrival in Chad, RI discovers that agencies are vastly underestimating the number of Darfur refugees fleeing the emerging genocide and distributing too few supplies. Many refugees are near starvation. RI successfully urges top officials to address this problem, and the number of refugees receiving assistance increases from 110,000 to 200,000 within weeks of our findings. Our work also leads to increased funding for reproductive health care for displaced women in Darfur.

Refugees International celebrates its 25th Anniversary and honors United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his wife Nane with the first McCall-Pierpaoli Award. Farooq Kathwari, CEO of Ethan Allen, becomes Chair of RI’s Board of Directors.

RI launches a new advocacy program for eleven million stateless people worldwide who lack an effective nationality. Our first successes occur when the UN Refugee Agency increases its staff to address the problem and designates posts in Bangladesh and Thailand that deal exclusively with stateless people. 

The U.S. provides millions of dollars for return and reintegration programs after RI reveals the needs of Congolese refugees who were returning home and rebuilding their lives. RI also succeeds in prompting the UN to deploy additional peacekeepers to an isolated region in the eastern Congo.

After RI releases a landmark report calling for more humanitarian aid inside Burma, the U.S. State Department’s refugee bureau funds projects inside Burma for the first time.

After RI meets with Congressional and Bush Administration officials to urge increased funding for the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Congress authorizes a major funding increase of $550 million for the force.

After RI urges Congress to increase socio-economic assistance over military support in its assistance package to Colombia, funding for social and economic programs rose from 18% to 35%, or $105 million.

Refugees International calls attention to the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis – the exodus of two million Iraqi refugees. After conducting missions to the Middle East to document their plight, RI reports on the desperate lack of assistance for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people to national and international media, congressional committees and top White House officials. As a result, the U.S. government increases funding for Iraqi refugees from $47 million to $398 million. In addition, President Obama commits to a comprehensive response to the needs of displaced Iraqis in a speech to the U.S. military.

After years of RI advocacy and coalition work on behalf of stateless Bihari, Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking minority, a High Court decision recognizes some 200,000 of them as citizens.

Refugees International receives the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Award for International Commitment from the Arab American Institute in honor of our advocacy work on behalf of Iraqi refugees.

The U.S. Congress provides five times more funding for humanitarian aid inside Burma compared to the previous year after RI research and advocacy highlights the ability of international aid agencies to provide assistance transparently and independently inside the country.

After RI travels to Haiti, nine months after the devastating earthquake that displaced at least 1.2 million people, it was learned that people were still in desperate situations, lacking food, water and shelter. Thanks largely to RI’s letters, panel-briefings and intimate meetings with leadership officials, the media’s attention was attracted to the poor living conditions, and RI was able to influence change. In response to RI’s efforts, the UNHCR more than tripled its staffing in Haiti to better protect the rights of the earthquake’s vulnerable survivors. Additionally, the World Food Program provided assistance to some 60,000 Haitians living in rural areas that had been neglected.

Michel Gabaudan becomes president of RI, after more than 25 years with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Eileen Shields-West becomes chair of RI Board of Directors.

RI aims to improve international peacekeepers' efforts to protect civilians from harm. After calling for the peacekeeping missions in the Sudan and DR Congo to improve their information-gathering and planning processes, RI is playing a central role in developing a Protection of Civilians training curriculum for UN peacekeepers. The UN Security Council also included several RI recommendations in a resolution on the UN Mission in Sudan, including the need for a comprehensive protection strategy.

RI opens an office in London. The opening of this first international office marks an important step in RI's efforts to reach policymakers in the European Union and United Nations.

In a year of overwhelming needs and severe fiscal constraints, RI secured increased funding and staffing for humanitarian responses across the globe. In Kenya, RI advocates pushed UNHCR to increase the number of protection officers at the sprawling Dadaab camp. In Somaliland, additional UN staffers were deployed after RI pointed out that aid coordination there was “lacking at all levels.” And in the Middle East, RI’s robust advocacy on behalf of Syrian refugees helped secure a number of important pledges, including $100 million in U.S. bilateral aid to Jordan.

Following the independence of South Sudan from Sudan in mid-2011, RI undertook a series of missions aimed at assessing the humanitarian situation and preventing statelessness in the region. RI early and forcefully raised the alarm about the situation of 300,000 southern Sudanese living in the north who were stripped of their citizenship and threatened with deportation. RI’s advocacy helped secure a series of charter flights to bring these individuals to the south safely. In addition, RI uncovered serious flaws in South Sudan’s nationality laws and procedures, which put many South Sudanese nationals at risk of statelessness. This led to South Sudan adopting a number of important measures, including a commitment to open nationality offices in every state in the country.



“I want to thank you for the positive role Refugees International has played during my Administration in refugee advocacy. The abiding concern for the welfare of refugees worldwide demonstrated time and time again by Refugees International has contributed constructively to our refugee policy.”
President George H.W. Bush, 1993

“Refugees International has an unmatched skill for initiating lifesaving responses to the immediate life-thretening needs of vulnerable people around the world.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, 2000

“On behalf of the President, I would like to thank Refugees International for the outstanding work it has done to highlight humanitarian issues.”
Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, 2002

“We are grateful for your strong support for a meaningful UN role in Iraq.”
Sergio Vieira de Mello, weeks before he was killed in a terror attack while serving as the senior UN official in Iraq in 2003

“I congratulate Refugees International on its admirable work for the past 25 years.”
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, 2004

“Refugees International is playing a major role in raising awareness, in advocacy and in forcing us to do what we need to do, what we are supposed to do.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, 2007

“Refugees International is indispensable in helping Congress understand what must be done to end refugee crises around the world.”
– Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 2008

“Refugees International staff provide timely analysis and recommendations based on what they have seen first-hand. Without you there would be a deafening silence for the millions of displaced that I strongly believe we have a moral imperative to help and to listen to…. When you present to us your expertise, coupled with the passion and commitment, you make a difference.”
– Congresswoman Nita M. Lowey, 2009

"As a senator, people come in all day asking for themselves and their families and maybe their immediate communities. But rarely, if ever, do they come in and argue for the faceless refugees around the world. That's RI and that is what's done.”
– Senator William H. Frist, M.D., 2011

“Refugees International's independence – and ability to speak out publicly on humanitarian issues – is extremely important. They make a vital contribution to collective efforts to protect civilians from conflict.”
– Gemma Mortensen, Crisis Action Executive Director, 2012