Blog Excerpts

The Troubled History of "Refugee"

On Minnesota Public Radio, our executive editor Ben Zimmer explored the problematic history of the word refugee, now frequently heard in media accounts of the European migration crisis.

For more, see Ben's recent Wall Street Journal column, "The Burden Carried by 'Refugee'":

International law has established a more precise meaning [of refugee]. As Adrian Edwards of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently explained, refugees are legally defined as “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution,” and as such are afforded protection under U.N. conventions.

This legal distinction is crucial this year, as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the Middle East and northern Africa, are making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to enter Europe. The crisis has set off a new round of arguments about the word “refugee.” To avoid the legal implications, some news outlets have opted for the more general label of “migrant,” “an umbrella term that also accurately reflects that these are people on the move,” as NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen puts it.

But others find “migrant” inadequate or even offensive. “It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative,” wrote Barry Malone, online editor for Al Jazeera English. “Refugee,” he argues, is a more humane choice.

The situation with refugee was very different ten years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the term was roundly rejected as a label for those displaced from their homes. Back in 2005, Ben talked about the post-Katrina controversy over refugee with Voice of America.

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