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From AJR,   October/November 2005

What’s in a Name?   

Does “refugee” depict the desperate plight of Katrina’s victims, or does it insult U.S. citizens?

By Dana Hull
Dana Hull (danahull@gmail.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.     

When Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of the Gulf Coast, stories describing "refugees" seemed to be everywhere. How else to depict the tens of thousands of people who were stranded in rising floodwaters or desperately fleeing New Orleans?

But after days of such characterizations, the tide began to turn. On Friday, September 2, the Congressional Black Caucus held a news conference at the National Press Club. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat from Detroit, cut to the chase:

"First of all, the people are not refugees. They are American citizens," she said. "They pay taxes. They raise their families. They help America grow. And I wish the media would call them American citizens and not refugees, which relegates them to another whole status."

Indignation fanned out across the country. Black ministers railed against the use of "refugee" from church pulpits. Some Louisiana and Mississippi residents who had made it to shelters complained to emergency personnel. Newspaper readers and TV viewers also objected to the term.

Vigorous debates began among copy editors and on journalism listservs. The National Association of Black Journalists encouraged editors to choose "more accurate terms such as 'evacuees,' 'victims,' or 'survivors.'"

A number of media organizations, including the Miami Herald, National Public Radio, the Washington Post, NBC and the Baltimore Sun decided to stop using "refugee." Some reporters shifted away from "refugee" on their own.

"We are using evacuee, survivor, displaced people," Don Podesta, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor/copy desks, said in an e-mail. "The executive editor, among others in the newsroom, felt that 'refugees' implies people fleeing political persecution or war. Our dictionary supports that connotation."

Others, including the Associated Press and the Sacramento Bee, held firm.

"The AP is using the term 'refugee' where appropriate to capture the sweep and scope of the effects of this historic natural disaster on a vast number of our citizens," said Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in a September 6 AP story about the dispute. "Several hundred thousand people have been uprooted from their homes and communities and forced to seek refuge in more than 30 different states across America. Until such time as they are able to take up new lives in their new communities or return to their former homes, they will be refugees."

A number of public editors and columnists also weighed in. Is the refugee debate a legitimate language issue? Did "refugee" gain currency initially because the survivors are overwhelmingly poor and black? Or did journalists — increasingly sensitive to the racial dimensions of the Hurricane Katrina story — stop using the term because of political correctness?

"Before Katrina rumbled ashore, 'refugee' was an inoffensive, neutral noun. In a posthurricane world, 'refugee' has become condescending and negative, a dirty word," wrote Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr. "It conjures echoes of the Third World among people who already feel sensitive because they believe New Orleans after the storm got ignored just like a Third World country.... This semantic debate is what happens when political correctness is taken to extremes, when people feel so neglected that a single word becomes a flashpoint, a place to focus their building frustration and rage."

Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune's public editor, also balked at alternatives to "refugee" and said in his September 8 column that he was "astonished at the hubbub." "At best, 'evacuee' gets to half of that meaning and carries the additional burden of sounding passive," wrote Wycliff, who added that he is a member of NABJ. " 'Survivor' and 'victim' speak to other issues entirely and are in no way synonyms for 'refugee.'"

Many international relief experts say it's not just a question of semantics: A body of international law lays out exactly who a refugee is and isn't. Article I of the 1951 Refugee Convention — the document that has guided United Nations efforts to help and protect at least 50 million refugees — defines "refugee" as: "A person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution."

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines refugee as "one that flees; esp: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution."

Seasoned disaster relief professionals agree that "refugee" should be used only when people have crossed borders. Jennifer Leaning, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health whose research includes a focus on international human rights law, humanitarian crises and disasters, says both "refugee" and "evacuee" make her cringe.

The political implication of "refugee" is that the people are not from this country, she says. "But the notion of 'evacuee' is passive. It makes it sound like they were taken care of, that they were actually evacuated by someone. 'Evacuees' makes it sound more organized than it was. These people were fleeing for their lives."

So what, exactly, should Katrina's victims be called?

Leaning urges editors and reporters to start educating the American public about yet another term: IDPs — short for "internally displaced persons."

"IDPs are forced by war, crisis or disaster to flee their homes in search of safer ground," Leaning says. "Using the word 'IDP' has the edge to it. It does not soften the circumstance."

But it's hard to imagine the clinical "IDP" entering the lexicon or dominating news reports. Says Stanford University linguist Geoff Nunberg: "Nobody wants to sound like a bureaucrat right now."