TCS Daily


No Refugees in America

By Carroll Andrew - September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

There are no Hurricane Katrina refugees in America. This does not mean that there are not evacuees, or disaster victims, or displaced persons who need help. And this does not mean, in the short term, that victims of Hurricane Katrina do not need as much material assistance as refugees from other parts of the world. But the victims of Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are not refugees.

Some commentators have tried to reduce this to a semantic point, as did William Safire when he tautologically asserted that "a refugee is a person who seeks refuge". But as Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post pointed out, there are strong connotations to the term refugee, connotations that Downie believes should not apply to Katrina's victims; "a number of people -- from officials speaking publicly to colleagues here -- said the term 'refugees' appeared to imply that people displaced from New Orleans ... were other than Americans". Jesse Jackson sees a racial connotation, "it is racist to call American citizens refugees". According to Associated Press executive editor Kathleen Carroll, the connotations are not inherently negative. They are related to the scale of the disaster; "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".

But the connotations of "refugee" go beyond the size of the disaster, and even beyond the people immediately affected by the disaster. Storms and wars, by themselves, do not create refugees. Disasters, natural or man made, create suffering and hardship. The suffering and hardship force people to leave their familiar surroundings. Once displaced, whether the displaced become refugees is determined not by what has happened to them, but by what will happen to them. Carroll starts to make this point, "until such time as they are able to take up new lives in their new communities or return to their former homes, [Katrina's victims] will be refugees", but misses a wider one.

Refugees are political creations. Displaced persons become refugees when their host views them as a problem originating somewhere else. The primary goal of a refugee host is to send refugees back to their somewhere else as quickly as possible. The host delivers aid, not always in the best ways to help individuals, but in ways that serve the political goal of making displaced people easier to move back to their somewhere else when conditions change for the better.

The dictionary-definition equivalence of "refugee" to "a person who seeks refuge" requires extension. In its modern context, the meaning of refugee is someone who seeks refuge in a place that refuses to fully accept them. Refugees are disaster victims told by their host that they can stay for awhile, but that eventually they must leave, because conditions are not "normal" while they are there. If they do stay, they are told that they can never have the same status as their hosts.

Whether displaced people become refugees reveals as much about the people maintaining the refuge as it does about the people seeking refuge.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina are not refugees because America is not treating victims as refugees. America harbors no illusion that there is some easy return to normal that can be achieved by sending the victims back to where they came from en masse. American society stands ready to absorb the problems and challenges of Katrina's victims wherever it can, marshalling its immense, distributed resources to help every Katrina victim be treated as an individual of unique value, and not as part of a faceless collective. This is what will save Katrina's victims from becoming refugees, even before all of the aid has been delivered.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

All quotes in this article are from Joceyln Noveck's September 7, 2005 Associated Press Story as printed in the Seattle Times.


 

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