REI was formed in 1979 at the end of a decade of turmoil around the world.

More than one million people were fleeing the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos triggering an international humanitarian crisis and putting severe strain on the resources of the receiving countries.

In early 1979 a number of foreign residents in Tokyo came together out of mutual concern for these refugees and sought to find a way to make a difference. Capitalizing on the publicity generated by the G7 summit taking place in Tokyo, the group used advertisements and the press to shift the attention of the world to the plight of refugees and successfully used the media to appeal to visiting heads of state, and the world, for help.

Sue Morton, a founding member, continued her work when she returned to live in the USA. Refugees International was then established to ensure that refugee rights and refugees issues are promoted through publicity, public education, advocacy and lobbying. REI and RI are, by virtue of their shared historical origins, ‘sister’ organizations that support a common cause but each has developed independently of the other and operates autonomously with separate and distinct policies, agendas, and management.