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Are Katrina's Victims 'Refugees' or 'Evacuees?'

Questions are being raised about what to call people who have escaped New Orleans. Are they refugees? Evacuees? Victims? It all depends on who you ask. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

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John Burnett, NPR

Questions are being raised about what to call people who have escaped New Orleans. Are they refugees? Evacuees? Victims? It all depends on who you ask.

John Burnett, NPR

Hurricane Katrina created thousands of refugees who were forced into states throughout the South, and beyond. But not so fast. Media outlets have been deluged with complaints about the term "refugee." Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said, "They are not refugees. They are citizens of the United States." (NPR has adopted a policy of not referring to them as refugees.)

In some dictionaries the definition of refugee is simply "one seeking refuge." But other dictionaries include the qualifier that the word is usually applied to a person crossing national boundaries because of persecution. Even the etymology of the word contains examples of applying only to trans-national evacuators, and to those who don't leave their borders.

This is more than an argument over semantics. The word refugee has certain connotations. Sharpton's point was that it strips a person of dignity. "They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity," he said. "They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place."

Sharpton's response needs some sorting out. First of all, of course these people need charity. There's no shame to that. But Sharpton is also saying that, to some extent, the victims of Katrina were victims of politics. You'd think he would embrace the term refugee specifically for its political connotations.

There is a bigger reason why I think the term is apt. They're refugees because circumstance is turning them into refugees. I was at one of the evacuation points the other day. Thousands of people were standing in mud. They were given food, drink and first aid. But there was little psychological aid, including even such basic information as what state they'd be bused to. If you watched this situation on television, you might not realize how dirty and foul-smelling these people were. There was a reluctance on the part of the rescuers to touch the people. There was a total unwillingness to walk among them. The reaction was understandable. Many of the people they were trying to help had swum through sewage water to get here, and no one was showering anytime soon.

The dynamic I witnessed was clearly of the dirty masses on one side and the soldiers and police on the other. There was a justification for this separation because security was a concern in New Orleans and law enforcement was on edge. But if you looked at the armed men in fatigues on one side of metal barricades, and thousands of grieving people in tattered clothes on the other, you couldn't help but think of Haiti or Kosovo. The people of New Orleans who finally made it out of town, and who are still being plucked from attics weren't people on their way out of town. The people who heeded warnings and had the wherewithal to leave town before Katrina hit were evacuees. These beleaguered people who had lost everything were something else.

A correspondent for NPR's Day to Day, Mike Pesca has been reporting from Louisiana on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath for the last week.