Homeless, destitute, but they're not refugees

Don't call them refugees. The hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to flee Hurricane Katrina's wreckage and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans are a lot of things - homeless, destitute, even desperate - but to call them refugees isn't accurate.

A debate over use of the word has flared since the beginnings of the relief effort, and many national news organizations used "refugees" and "evacuees" interchangeably for many days.

Even President Bush was caught up in the discussion.

"You know, there's a debate here about refugees," Bush said last week at the White House. "Let me tell you my attitude ... The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."

At the Appeal, we received several telephone calls from readers taking us to task for using "refugee." We have since attempted to catch all such references and change them to "evacuee" or "victim."

While a broad definition may well include people forced to flee their homes from a natural disaster, the term "refugee" is most often associated with political or religious persecution.

Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told the Washington Post: "Legally, refugees are people suffering from persecution based on race, ethnicity and religion under U.S. and international law. These are displaced Americans. They are not people without a country."

In today's world of political correctness, too many perfectly good words have been rendered useless by a perceived need for sensitivity and a preference for vagueness over specificity.

This is not one of those cases, however. "Evacuee" is a more accurate term. It may not seem like a big deal to the rest of America, but for the people of the Gulf Coast, it carries a sense of temporary displacement and hope for a return to their homes.

In the end, we trust, they can call themselves survivors.


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