When an August 2017 USA Today article on the federal emergency response to Hurricane Harvey referred to people fleeing the catastrophic storm as "refugees," that choice of words stood out. That's because much of the media coverage of the disaster used the term "evacuees" to describe those escaping the hurricane.
That's a marked contrast to 12 years ago, when those who displaced by Hurricane Katrina were routinely referred to in the news media as refugees.
You might be wondering why it matters what people fleeing the storm are called, since in colloquial use, refugee and evacuee might seem pretty much interchangeable. But the two words actually have different meanings and implications.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an evacuee is an "evacuated person," i.e., someone who has been part of an organized withdrawal from a place for purposes of protection, and a refugee as "one that flees; especially a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution." Interestingly, refugee is the older word. Its first documented use in English was in 1685, according to Merriam-Webster, while evacuee didn't show up until 1918.
But, as journalism professor Michael J. Fuhlhage wrote in 2006 in the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics, "[I]t's important to recognize that the dictionary is not the only arbiter of meanings; it is only a historical document for the meaning of a word at the time the dictionary was printed."
While there is much overlap in the dictionary definitions of the term, legal definitions come into play, too. According to this 2006 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) document, though, "evacuee" specifically means somebody who has been vetted and documented by federal officials as needing government-subsidized housing, expense money and other assistance because of a natural disaster.
"Refugee," in contrast, is a term with a different and very specific meaning in international law. The United Nations Refugee Agency defines a refugee as "someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries."
That's a bit different — and in some ways, more severe — than having to be airlifted, driven or boated to the next county or state to stay in a temporary shelter. Not only are refugees homeless, but they can't return home — perhaps ever again — for fear of being mistreated or killed. And they've had to take refuge in a foreign country.
Back in 2005, the use of "refugee" for Hurricane Katrina evacuees was criticized by civil rights activists They felt that it made storm victims, many of whom were African-Americans, seem less than full-fledged Americans, according to this 2005 Associated Press article. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and sheltered the New Orleans Superdome, he said "It is racist to call American citizens refugees."
Some news organizations, such as the Washington Post and Boston Globe, declined to call people displaced by Katrina refugees, while others did so.
Times clearly have changed, and, at least in the English-language U.S. media, "evacuee" is the prevalent term.