Sunday, September 04, 2005

Is "refugee" derogatory?
Chris Rabb of AfroNetizen finds the word "refugee," when applied to the displaced inhabitants ofthe Gulf Coast, to be offensive.

Hurricane Katrina victims are Americans!

If Mississipians fled to Jamaica, then they would be refugees.

Notice the imagery and language CNN and the rest choose use when identifying looters and such.

The rest of his post is about bias in the news and the moral responsibility for corporate America to help in a crisis. He doesn't explain any further what bothers him so much about the word "refugee."

I'm sure that under certain canons of international law, crossing a border is a requirement to gain the legal status of "refugee," but that has little bearing on the use of the word in common language. Reporters and academics regularly refer to large numbers of suddenly displaced people, for whatever cause--natural disaster or civil war--as "refugees." The fact that the Katrina survivors are internally displaced might affect the authority of UN High Commissioner on Refugees to look in on their plight, but what better term is there to use for tens of thousands of people camping in public arena, hundreds of miles from home, and completely dependent on aid groups for their survival?

As a word choice, I suppose there's room for debate here. What puzzles me is that Rabb seems to find the word derogatory, even racist. That is, at least, the implication of the rest of his essay and of his juxtaposing his complaint about "refugee" next to reminder of the explicitly racist way the word "looter" has been applied in the news.

So I'm curious, what do the rest of you think? Is "refugee" a slur? Does it have some derogatory meaning that I'm unaware of?

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