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There’s been much controversy in the USA over what to call people forced out of New Orleans, Mississippi and neighbouring areas as a result of the recent disaster (Even in the midst of what the head of Homeland Security called an ultra-catastrophe, there’s still time for semantic analysis.)

Most early news reports called them refugees (“Astrodome to become new home for storm refugees”, USA Today, 1 Sep; “Bus refugees overcome bureaucracy”, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 2 Sep; “The refugee emergency is beginning to affect neighboring states, Texas most of all”, New York Times, 4 Sep — just three of many hundreds of examples). This brought an angry response on CNN from Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick that no US citizen could be a refugee in his own country, a view supported by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings. It was echoed by Bruce Gordon, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in an interview for the Guardian: “I think it’s an offensive term. These people are fellow Americans. Using the word refugees makes it sound like they are not of us.” The Reverend Jesse Jackson called it “racist”; he and other African-American leaders have even argued the word has criminal connotations. President Bush also opposed the usage: “The people we’re talking about are not refugees. They are Americans.”

The definitions in many dictionaries are along the lines of “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”. So, the objectors seem to be arguing (I must confess to some difficulty working this out), if the escaping victims of the disaster are refugees, and they are within the USA, then that implies they aren’t American citizens. And since the great majority of those left in New Orleans when the hurricane struck are black, that implies that reporters who are using refugee are racist, denigrating black people as lower than second-class citizens. This is a convoluted argument based on either ignorance or selective reading of reference books and isn’t supported by usage. And where criminality might come in baffles me completely.

Many people will be surprised to hear that refugee necessarily implies a move to another country. Not all dictionaries take this view: the Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country”, which leaves open the possibility that it might be a flight within one country, and the American Heritage Dictionary says simply “One who flees in search of refuge”, without reference to a destination. However, the Oxford English Dictionary — followed by other Oxford dictionaries and echoing the definition in the 1951 United Nations refugees convention — firmly says that travel across a national border is implicit. The OED’s entry shows that the first use of refugee was in reference to the French Huguenots who came to England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The term is itself French, and comes from réfugier, to seek refuge. The link with refuge is a strong influence on sense; both words derive from Latin refugium, a place of refuge, in which the core is fugere, to flee.

But what is a national border? A large proportion of those who have moved away from the disaster areas have gone to Texas, but others have fled to cities like Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, even Chicago and Detroit. All have crossed state lines. With the federal structure of the USA, foreign observers may well feel that they have crossed borders of a very real kind. To those states trying to cope with the financial and social implications of a sudden huge involuntary influx, it has seemed to commentators very like the refugee crises we see reported from other parts of the world, accentuated by the USA now accepting help, such as medicines and food, from other countries. A great many of these people plan to settle permanently in their new homes and never go back, which reinforces the idea of their being refugees.

Others called them what seemed like a more neutral term, displaced persons (including George Bush, in remarks made after a meeting on 1 September: “Government agencies are working with faith-based and community groups to find shelters for thousands of displaced persons”). For older people this brought unpleasant memories of the foreign men and women compelled to work in Germany in the 1939-45 war, and afterwards made homeless. However, it’s enshrined in the formal international definitions, which contrast refugee with internally displaced person or IDP, a person who is forced out of their home but who remains in their own country. It’s a dreadful bit of bureaucratic jargon (only George Bush, with his tin ear for language, would have used it in a public speech). But it’s a useful distinction for the aid agencies — refugees move to another country and often become the responsibility of the international community, IDPs probably not.

Still other reporters have tried evacuee (“Many evacuees were seeking to get jobs and enroll their children in school in the communities where they are currently sheltered”, Washington Times, 2 Sep.), some newspapers have mandated this term, and because of the dispute it is becoming common. It might be correct for those who left New Orleans before the hurricane struck, except that they left through their own efforts and no official aid was given apart from traffic control (as one dictionary puts it, “a person moved from a place of danger to somewhere safer”; note the passive — evacuation is something that happens to you, not something you do). For British people of my age and older it brought to mind people, especially children, who were taken out of the big cities by a planned relocation effort during the early part of World War Two to avoid the bombing. It might be correct for those bussed out of New Orleans later in the week, and those now being forcibly removed, but not the rest.

Evacuee implies an orderly and organised process. Refugee implies a desperate, involuntary and unplanned move. The former doesn’t have the emotive implications or emotional force of the latter. Whatever its dictionary sense, or the definitions of the international aid organisations, or the plaints of politicians, or the lexical views of dictionaries and pedants, for most people refugee sums up the situation of the sufferers more accurately than any other.

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Page created 17 Sep 2005