HMDT Communications Officer Alice Owen reflects on the current refugee and migration crisis in Europe.
Tuesday, 20 October, 2015

My grandparents and their families became refugees in the years leading up to the Holocaust, abruptly forced from comfortable family lives into an indescribable chaos and trauma that has had an impact on the rest of their lives. My grandmother and her brother and sister secured travel to the UK on the Kindertransport, they were also lucky that their parents later managed to escape. Without this offer of refuge, led by the Jewish community in partnership with the UK Government, they would almost definitely have all been murdered like so many others were.

We are now watching the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two unfold. If you’ve watched TV, listened to the radio, opened a paper, or been on social media in the last few months you will have undoubtedly been confronted with imagery showing the impact of global conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of people undertaking incredibly risky journeys, boarding boats and dinghies to sail away from desperate situations in their homelands. They undertake a journey of hope to a safer place where they can work and bring up their families without the threat of injury and death. Seeing the pictures of drowned young children washed ashore on beaches may prompt us to ask why anyone would risk their life on these dangerous and uncertain voyages. The answer is simple; it is because many people feel that this risk is the best option. 

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing people as part of Operation Triton. ©Creative Commons.

There is another striking element to the images we see. These scenes are taking place in Europe, from the beaches and seas that we associate with balmy summer holidays, a juxtaposition that forces us to confront the situation, where previously we may have looked away. This has now become our issue too.

And it’s an issue that is getting worse. Arrivals by sea have increased by 88% in the last year (from 219,000 total arrivals in 2014 to 411,567 arrivals by September 2015), with the month of September seeing the most arrivals so far this year. The majority of these people are travelling from situations where they are in need of international protection, fleeing from war, violence and persecution in their home countries. Some too are economic migrants, looking for opportunities to better their futures.

A recent report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that refugees and migrants are travelling from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Bangladesh. Around 5,000 of the refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe are from Sudan.

Refugees fleeing Genocide in Darfur

Of those fleeing from Sudan many are Black Africans of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes escaping the genocide being carried out against them by Janjaweed armed militias who are supported by the Sudanese Government. It’s a genocide which is now in its twelfth year and has affected 4.7 million people, many of whom are denied their basic human rights. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, up to 2.7 million people displaced internally in Darfur and 300,000 are now living in neighbouring Chad. 

18 March 2014. Saraf Omra A group of children in the new settlement for displaced people at the vicinity of the UNAMID base in Saraf Omra, North Darfur ©Albert González Farran UNA

In 2010 the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for three counts of genocide against each tribe in Darfur. Since then there has also been increasing evidence of the Sudanese Government using military aircraft to bomb civilians and civilian targets in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, in the south of the country. 

In September alone the organisation Sudo UK recorded 69 incidents of human rights abuses from their partners on the ground in Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Al-Qadarif. They reported that the Government of Sudan are responsible for 34, almost half of the attacks that took place this month. This included acts committed by the Sudanese Air Force (7), Sudanese Armed Forces (1) Military Intelligence (7), the National Intelligence and Security Services (3), Government officials (2), the Falata ethnic militia (1 – direct Government support of the attack in Abugarin), the Rapid Support Forces (4), and the Border Guards (9). Janjaweed militias were responsible for 29 instances of human rights abuses, the armed opposition two, and unknown parties committed four such acts.

Within the 69 incidents that were recorded 23 individuals were raped, including 13 minors, 29 villages were attacked and 58 people were killed. They report shocking evidence like this case study from North Darfur:

‘A 15-year‐old girl was raped multiple times by members from a Janjaweed militia in her farm situated in Wadi Bargo, east of Kabakabeyia airport. The sexual assault occurred whilst the grandmother of the victim was present. The grandmother died shortly after the incident.’

Statistics and information about incidents like these are shocking and it is important to remember that the number of incidents reported underestimates the number of abuses that actually affect the civilian population. These incidents and the lack of justice can help us to understand why people are forced to leave their homes. What would you do if these risks confronted your family and friends' safety? Organisations like Sudo UK help to document the desperate situation for black African people in Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Al-Qadarif so that we can learn more and be driven to action.

Telling life stories

Another way that we know about the experience of Darfuris in Sudan is through the experiences of survivors like Bouye who live in the UK. Bouye chose to share his story with HMDT to develop greater awareness of the situation and encourage people to take action by providing support to refugees.

Bouye, from the Zaghawa tribe, travelled to Greece and onto the UK on his journey of escape from torture and captivity in Sudan. The only item he carried with him was a bag, given to him by the doctor that helped him to flee, which contained only a toothbrush and biscuits.


Don’t stand by, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, focuses on the importance the lessons of the Holocaust in our society today. These lessons may alter from person to person based on their own experiences and values. Personally this year’s theme makes me question whether I am doing enough today to support those like Bouye who are being forced to flee conflict and persecution.

Even small actions can have a big impact. If the UK Jewish community hadn’t have grouped together to help save 10,000 Jewish children my family would probably have been killed. Today, donating money to charities assisting refugees will help to support them and keep vulnerable and homeless people warmer during the cold winter months.

As the genocide in Darfur continues, many of its victims will continue to look to Europe for safety. What response will they find from people like us?

What can you do? 

Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to hear about our online action for HMD 2016.

Get involved with Waging Peace, a Human Rights NGO a human rights organisation who campaign against genocide and systematic human rights violations in Sudan.

Make a financial donation to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is doing related humanitarian work overseas such as the UNHCR.

Donate items through the British Red Cross’s #ShopDrop campaign.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.