I like this [Elijah] Cummings guy, but what’s this shtick about not calling people displaced by Katrina “refugees”? “These are not refugees, they are Americans, they pay taxes.”

Excuse me?

What do these people think “regular” refugees are? Chopped liver? They’re human beings. What is it, Americans are something loftier and better than, say, tsunami victims in Sri Lanka?

I’m not being disingenuous. I know that they are trying not to get this poor sods get any more labelled. But the net effect is to add some baggage to a word, ie “refugee”, that didn’t carry it until yesterday.

Most of the replies to her post make the technical point that to be considered a refugee by international law you have to have been displaced across a recognised international frontier; otherwise you are an “internally displaced person”. This is vocabulary I’m very much accustomed to at work, for obvious reasons. In Nagorno-Karabakh, for instance, maybe a million people were driven from their homes during the conflict, but the only ones who count as refugees are the couple of hundred thousand who fled to Armenia; those who ended up elsewhere in Azerbaijan are IDP’s.

But this is specialised stuff for those of us who deal in international relations for a living. On the broader point, is right. I googled up the full quote which bothered her, from Congresswoman Diane Watson of California in Associated Press (here via the Toronto Globe and Mail):

Ms. Watson and others also took issue with the word “refugee” being used to describe hurricane victims.

“‘Refugee’ calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens,” Ms. Watson said. [Can’t find the line about taxes, maybe it was on TV only]

Elijah Cummings added, “they are not refugees. I hate that word.”

On the one hand, perhaps Diane Watson is trying to make the technical distinction referred to above – she has actually visited refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border, after all, whose inhabitants fled the denocidal horrors of Darfur. On the other, Cummings’ riposte has definite nuances of “refugee” being a stigmatised word; that “refugees” are never people like us.

Well, they are. One of my earliest memories is of waking up late at night to find my mother moving around my room gathering up cuddly toys. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was getting things “for the refugees”. It was years before I worked out what must have been going on. This must have been in August 1971, when over 2,000 people were intimidated out of their houses in Belfast, with one of the areas of concentrated violence being the Suffolk area of West Belfast, a mile and a half from where we lived, and people taking refuge, among other places, in the school which I would later attend. (Overall during the Troubles, 30 or 40 thousand people in Northern Ireland were forced to move from their homes, the biggest forced population movement in Europe between 1945 and Nagorno-Karabakh.) [Edited to add: Oops, forgot Cyprus there. But it’s certainly the biggest forced population movement in Western Europe since 1945.]

I remember also Serb spokesmen during the Kosovo in 1999 attempting to convince the international community that the massive flow of people from Kosovo were not “really” refugees because they had cars and decent clothes. As the Serbs of Kosovo were to find out only a few months later, refugee status can hit anyone regardless of their level of material possessions.

Of course it’s desperate and demoralising when your country’s ability to look after its own citizens has deteriorated to the extent that hundreds of thousands are forced from their homes, whether the culprit is Man or Nature. If we have to use the word “refugee” to bring home to people just how deperate the situation is, then we should do it. There, but for the grace of God, goes any of us.

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1 Response to Refugees?

  1. nwhyte says:

    I think the North is also fairly low on the HDI, so its presence on the list is likely to survive partition – you know better than me but if Uganda and Ethiopia are still there I should think that Khartoum is covered as well.

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