According to the UNHCR, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This describes citizens of countries with destabilized or oppressive states, underdeveloped countries, countries experiencing civil wars, and countries that do not have the infrastructure to withstand climate change.
How is it that this definition applies to Hurricane Katrina victims? This definition implicates a direct failure on the part of the government, which it was, but it also implies that the United States is not a functioning country that depends on the functions of the government. Or that the functions of the government are targeted, which is seen through the devaluation of black spaces and lives and the interest in capital. The following is a quote from Al Sharpton in describing the issue. He states:
“They are not refugees. They are citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi, tax-paying citizens. They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” -Al Sharpton
It’s terrifying to see how New Orleans natives and American citizens were treated as refugees, which is pretty explicit in describing them as second-class citizens.
The implication of why it’s wrong to call evacuees refugees stems from the United States’ history of immigrants and refugees.The United States is the world’s largest donor in humanitarian aid and international development, but the US refuses to take the responsibility of resettling refugees along with other developed European countries like the UK. Instead, refugees apply for asylum in places, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Pakistan if they have the opportunity to move out of the country. If not, they may move internally within their country if the risk is too high to cross the seas.
The world is going through a huge refugee crisis with civil wars and climate change destabilizing regions; however, something that remains constant is the United States’ refusal to bring in refugees and immigrants as a whole, especially if they don’t look like them. Italian American’s were seen as a minority group, mistreated, and lynched even in the late 19th and early 20th century, but they were capable of assimilating due to the color of their skin.Other racial and ethnic groups have not integrated into America as the Italians have because of the color of their skin.
I say this because it’s one thing to say that an immigrant, but especially a refugee that cannot return to their home country without feeling their life threatened, is not allowed into the country because people see them as a liability or as the “Other.” This is truly a tragedy because they are victims of circumstance. It is another thing to formally share citizenship with Hurricane Katrina victims and characterize them as refugees in this country. They too are a victim of circumstance. They did not choose the zip code that they were born into, their family, their socioeconomic class. The Hurricane Katrina victims were treated like refugees because they are not white and do not look like what mainstream society views as “them”. Katrina is a class-based, but predominately a racial issue.