Netflix’s Transatlantic tells the story of how Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee helped thousands of refugees flee France during World War II. Read how the organisation became the International Rescue Committee and how we’ve continued to support people facing conflict and crisis for the past 90 years. 


Through the years


Varian Fry led an incredibly complex and dangerous operation to rescue thousands of people from Nazi-controlled France at the height of World War II.
Varian Fry at his office in Marseilles in the spring of 1941. "I felt obliged to help," he said of his daring rescue operation.
Photo: Varian Fry Institute

American branch of the European-based International Relief Association (IRA) is founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein to assist Germans suffering under Hitler. Refugees from Mussolini's Italy and Franco's Spain are later assisted.


Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) formed to support European refugees trapped in Vichy France. Over 2,000 political, cultural, union and academic leaders rescued in 13 months.


IRA and ERC join forces under the name International Relief and Rescue Committee, later shortened to the International Rescue Committee.

Carel Sternberg, former IRC executive director, visits a food distribution center in Berlin in 1945.
Photo: IRC


The IRC, at the end of World War II, initiates emergency relief programmes, establishes hospitals and children's centres and starts refugee resettlement efforts in Europe. With the descent of the Iron Curtain in 1946, the IRC initiates resettlement programme for East European refugees, which continues until the end of the Cold War.


The IRC intensifies its aid in Europe with Project Berlin, providing food to the people of West Berlin amid increased Soviet oppression.

Leo Cherne poses for a picture holding a flag while standing in front of a sign that says "Help Free Hungary."
Led by Chairman Leo Cherne, the IRC provided aid to Hungarian refugees after Soviet forces crushed an attempted revolution in the country.
Photo: IRC


Leo Cherne, a board member since 1946, elected IRC Chairman, a position he would hold for 40 years.


In South Vietnam, the IRC begins a programme to aid 1 million refugees following defeat of the French by the North Vietnamese. The program develops into a vast, long-range relief and resettlement effort for Indochinese refugees: Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians.


The IRC starts resettlement and relief programmes for Hungarian refugees after the revolution is crushed by Soviet forces.


A Cuban family of four poses with an IRC staff member in front of a wall that says "IRC," next to a Cuban flag and a U.S. flag.
The Estevez family was one of many Cuban families resettled in the U.S. by the IRC during the 1960s.
Photo: IRC

An IRC resettlement programme begins for Cuban refugees fleeing the Castro dictatorship and for Haitian refugees escaping the Duvalier regime.


IRC operations are extended to Africa when 200,000 Angolans flee to Zaire; IRC also begins aid to Chinese fleeing to Hong Kong from the mainland.


IRC provides extensive support, especially medical, health, child care and schooling, for the 10 million East Pakistani refugees fleeing to India. The work continues as the refugees return to their new nation of Bangladesh.

A refugee woman and child from Laos sit on the ground outside, awaiting medical treatment.
Laotian refugees await care outside an IRC medical clinic in Thailand.
Photo: IRC

IRC takes a leading role in the resettlement of Asian nationals persecuted and expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin.


Chilean refugees are assisted by the IRC in their efforts to win asylum in the U.S.; IRC also helps refugees from Uruguay, Paraguay and Guatemala.


The IRC begins emergency relief, medical, educational and self-help programmes for Indochinese refugees fleeing to Thailand, later to include thousands from Burma.


IRC President Leo Cherne organises the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees, comprising a cross-section of America's political, cultural and religious leaders. The Commission conducted many trips to Southeast Asia and for years served as the leading advocate of people fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

A young Afghan boy pours water onto the roots of a growing tree.
An Afghan refugee boy in Pakistan waters a fruit tree.
Photo: IRC


Departure of refugees from the Soviet Union - mostly dissidents, Armenians, Jews reaches a peak of 53,000.  Thousands are resettled by IRC.


IRC launches emergency relief programmes for Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan, leading to long-term health, education, self-reliance and job training programmes.

IRC starts emergency programmes in the Sudan for flood of refugees fleeing Ethiopia. The work extends to Somalia in 1981.

A group of young Ethiopian refugee children sit in the dirt outside a structure made of sticks and branches.
Ethiopian refugee children sit outside a feeding center in Suriya, Sudan in 1982.
Photo: Jon Eklund/IRC


IRC assists Palestinian and Lebanese refugees uprooted by the war in Lebanon.


In El Salvador, the IRC initiates a broad range of health, child care and community development projects for displaced victims of civil war.

Spanish Refugee Aid becomes a division of IRC, serving the survivors of the Spanish Civil War in France.

An older man and a number of young boys, all Afghan refugees, pose for a photo outside, in front of a tree.
Starting in 1988, thousands of Afghan refugee families prepared to leave Pakistan and return home.
Photo: IRC


IRC begins healthcare programme in Poland, in partnership with the Polish trade union movement, Solidarity.

IRC responds to refugee flow of Mozambicans to Malawi - soon to exceed 1 million - by initiating relief programmes. Eight years later, IRC assists the returning refugees inside Mozambique.


IRC starts community rehabilitation activities in Afghanistan for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan.


Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children established by IRC to serve the rights and interests of 80% of the world's refugees: women and children.

A young Iraqi refugee stands in alone, outside, in a crowded refugee camp in Turkey.
This young girl was among the thousands of Iraqi refugees who were forced to leave their homes and flee for Turkey in the early 1990s.
Photo: A. Hollman/UNHCR


The IRC also launches emergency health and healthcare training programmes in Sudan serving some 250,000 displaced people in Bhar El Ghazal and the Upper Nile states.

After the first Gulf War, the IRC comes to the aid of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who flee to the mountains of Turkey to escape Saddam Hussein's terror.


IRC begins work in the former Yugoslavia dealing initially with the consequences of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The IRC later launches comprehensive community rehabilitation programmes in Bosnia.


IRC sets up emergency programmes to aid Rwandan refugees pouring into Tanzania and the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) as a result of the genocide and ensuing civil war.


Two Bosnian women lie in beds in a refugee camp in Croatia, one of whom is crying.
The IRC began work in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 following the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 1993, we’ve resettled over 20,000 refugees from the Balkans in the U.S.
Photo: Elizabeth Rappaport/IRC

The IRC moves into Somaliland, providing agriculture extension training and small business credit programmes for refugees returning from camps in Ethiopia.


In Burundi, the IRC begins emergency aid to displaced people in six of the country's 16 provinces.


IRC begins operating inside Kosovo, eventually providing aid to help meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees fleeing to Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia.

Two Kosovar refugee women, and two infant children, sit inside a tent.
These Kosovar refugees are among the hundreds of thousands whom the IRC aided in Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia in the late 1990s.
Photo: Mark Bartolini/IRC

IRC opens an office in the United Kingdom to support the IRC’s global interventions and to add a new voice to the sometimes disquieting debates on refugees and asylum in the UK.


IRC healthcare and public health services are established in Congo-Brazzaville.


Emergency operations are launched for the East Timorese following a rampage by Indonesian militia groups that leaves tens of thousands of people homeless.

Three young Afghan girls in bright pink clothing pose for a picture.
As the new millennium began, the IRC continued its work in Afghanistan, aiding millions of returning refugees and internally displaced Afghanis.
Photo: IRC


In Ingushetia, the IRC launches emergency shelter, sanitation, and education for Chechen refugees fleeing fighting between Russian forces and separatist Chechen rebels.


IRC activities broaden inside Afghanistan, with emergency aid programmes to 1 million displaced people, and reconstruction and rehabilitation for more than two million refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran.

IRC undertakes an advocacy campaign to reverse the U.S. government's slowdown in refugee resettlement approval following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

IRC participates in the demobilisation of 1,200 child soldiers in Sierra Leone.


IRC responds to the war in Iraq with water and sanitation, and healthcare support.

A middle aged man squats down as he talks with a group of Iraqi children.
Michael Kocher, IRC's Vice President of International Programs, meets with a group of Iraqi children in 2004.
Photo: IRC

Programmes expand in West Africa, with continued war in Liberia and new fighting in Ivory Coast, and growing populations of refugees and displaced persons in those countries and in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Programmes include health, education, family reunification and gender-based violence prevention.


The IRC’s Mortality Survey for the Democratic Republic of Congo estimates that 3.9 million people have died in the DRC since the conflict began in 1998, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

A group of Indonesians work together in a large wooden building, attaching pieces of wood together to build boats.
After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Indonesia in December, 2004, the IRC provided extended aid to the regions most effected, which included economic revitalization programs such as boat-building.
Photo: IRC

IRC mobile relief teams, with specialists in health, water and sanitation, and child protection, deliver emergency services and supplies to the province of Aceh, Indonesia - the region closest to the epicenter of the devastating 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

In Sudan, the IRC begins providing health, water and sanitation, hygiene awareness, shelter, flood and drought relief, food security and economic revitalisation assistance to nearly 100 communities in the Darfur region.

The IRC starts providing essential services to Sudanese refugees in neighboring Chad.


A doctor and another man, both Pakistani, sit on the floor, as the doctor takes the blood pressure of the other man.
In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Pakistan, the IRC provided aid, including medical care, to 250,000 people.
Photo: Scott Anger IRC

Long-term aid by the IRC continues to help tsunami-affected communities in Indonesia by rehabilitating healthcare infrastructure, providing psychosocial support to children and families, and offering community regeneration.

Following a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, IRC emergency teams respond to help 250,000 people and treat thousands of the sick and injured.

Only days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a swath of the Gulf Coast in August, the IRC dispatches an emergency team of relief experts to Louisiana. It is our first response to a humanitarian crisis in the United States. 


Working with local groups, the IRC provided urgent assistance to thousands of people affected by fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Two young Iraqi boys smile and pose for a photo, with one placing his harm around the other.
Throughout the 21st century, the IRC has provided aid to millions of Iraqis whose lives have been uprooted by conflict in their country.
Photo: Rachel Unkovic/IRC


IRC launches a campaign to aid and support over 4 million displaced and uprooted Iraqis.


The IRC observes our 75th anniversary.


IRC affiliate the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children becomes the Women's Refugee Commission


Haiti earthquake 2010
Wilio Jean and his son Wilji were reunited by IRC case workers.
Photo: Susana Ferreira/IRC

The IRC begins providing aid in Haiti after a massive earthquake strikes just outside Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010.


The IRC helps Japanese aid groups provide lifesaving assistance to survivors of a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011.


The IRC begins assisting Syrians whose lives have been uprooted by a brutal civil war. In 2015, we provided aid to over 1.4 million people inside Syria.


When one of the strongest storms in recorded history slams the Philippines, the IRC deploys an emergency team to assist the millions affected by Typhoon Haiyan.


A Syrian woman on Lesbos rocks her child to sleep in a transit site for refugees arriving on the Greek island.
Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill/IRC

When West Africa experiences the largest outbreak of the Ebola virus in history, the IRC is at the forefront of the response to curb its spread, training thousands of local health facilities in Sierra Leone and other countries on how to protect health workers and limit the spread of the disease.

When 60,000 unaccompanied children cross the border into the United States from Central America in the summer of 2014, the IRC seeks to find out why and to reunite some of them with relatives in America.


The IRC establishes an emergency response team on the Greek island of Lesbos to provide aid to the thousands of Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey who are fleeing their country's brutal civil war. The IRC soon expands our work to multiple refugee sites on the Greek mainland and in Serbia.

After Nepal's worst earthquake in 80 years, thousands of quake victims receive emergency assistance from the IRC’s partner organisation, Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR). 

Violence that broke out following a contested presidential election drives 260,000 Burundians to flee the country and leaves tens of thousands internally displaced. The IRC provides support to uprooted families inside Burundi and in neighboring countries.


When the deadly coronavirus spread globally, people living in conflict and crisis were hardest hit. The IRC’s response focused on reaching the most vulnerable communities in over 40 countries worldwide. From continuing to provide health services to refugees to ensuring even the most remote communities were able to access information. The IRC’s COVID response plan was also shared with other aid organisations that might not have health experts available.  


The IRC launches its first UK programme supporting refugees in Britain. The IRC works with refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants living in the UK from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Sudan and beyond.

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan reached record levels in the first half of 2021 and the shift in power saw American forces depart the country rapidly in August 2021. The IRC began work in Afghanistan in 1988 and now works across 12 provinces providing humanitarian aid. 


As the war in Ukraine saw the fastest growing displacement crisis in Europe since WW2, the IRC was on the ground in Ukraine and neighbouring countries, working with partners to deliver aid to people in need of support. In just a year, we reached 2.7 million people with crucial in-person support and online information services.