Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fargo Flood Highlights Evacuee versus Refugee

As have many Americans, I've listened to a great deal of flood talk, these last two weeks, including orders and the discussion of requests that residents evacuate endangered areas. At one point, a Fargo official referred to those forced to leave their homes as “refugees”. This sparked an immediate objection from others, who quickly agreed that Fargoans seeking shelter were, instead, evacuees. What, you ask, is the difference?

Linguistically, there exists very little to differentiate between the terms. Per Merriam-Webster, refugee refers to “one that flees ; especially : a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution” while an evacuee is one who “withdraw[s] from a place in an organized way especially for protection”.

The difference lies in the sense of two key words in these definitions. When one flees, whether from a force of nature or a ruthless dictator, such action implies a lack of control or power. Withdrawal, on the other hand, generally arises as a matter of choice, rooted in safety though it may be.

While the meanings may differ very little, the emotional impact of the words on those to whom they are applied can be great. Thus, Fargo and Moorhead residents who left their homes, and an orderly and protective choice it was, did not flee from the rising Red River, nor did they abandon the fight to keep the water from their homes. They withdrew those who could not help themselves and returned to help their friends and neighbors protect what they love. Evacuees they may be, but do not call them refugees.




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