As before and during the Holocaust, people flee when their lives and communities are at risk. The massive movement of populations is almost always a warning sign of genocide or the threat of genocide.
The Syrian civil war is the primary driver of the rapid, global increase in people displaced from atrocities and other forms of persecution over the past five years. As of the end of 2014, almost 60 million people have been displaced, the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.
In addition to Syria, large numbers of displaced persons have fled atrocity crises in recent years in Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan, and Burundi, among others. In Sudan's western region of Darfur, for which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum declared a Genocide Emergency in July 2004, hundreds of thousands of Darfurians fled across the border into Chad. Some two million more were displaced inside Darfur, while up to 400,000 perished from violence and the conditions of life inflicted on targeted groups.
The recognition of a moral failure in responding to Jews and others fleeing persecution before World War II, and the need to deal with the many people left displaced at war's end, led to important international developments. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. In 1950, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created. And in 1951, the United Nations Convention on Refugees laid the foundation for the basic international obligation not to return people to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened, an obligation the United States accepted in 1968.
The Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as someone, who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his habitual residence, is unable or unwilling to return to it." Under the terms of the Refugee Convention, refugees are guaranteed a wide range of civil and human rights, including freedom of association, the right of legal redress, and protection from discrimination.
These critical landmarks established the plight of refugees as a responsibility of the international community. They continue to shape policy today. Additionally, addressing the needs of “internally displaced persons”—who are not legally “refugees” because they have not crossed an international border—presents another complex challenge.
The number and size of refugee crises in the world at any given time—as well as the expectations for aid—often exceed the international community's capacity to respond. Whenever populations are at risk, there are those who attempt to flee to safer countries. Yet the problems surrounding adequate response in terms of protecting refugees' rights, finding safe havens, and supplying aid in times of massive upheaval have not lessened with time. The protection of refugees and response to refugee crises are integral to genocide prevention efforts today.