I say refugee, you say IDP

IDPs arriving at Al Salaam camp outside Nyala in 2007.
Refugees arriving at Al Salaam camp, Nyala, South Darfur, in 2007.

I’ve had this argument in at least six African countries, with four United Nations agencies and the same Oxfam press officer over and over again. It is tiresome and tedious. So in future I will simply direct people who are too dim to comprehend the point to this post…

I know how charities and the United Nations define the term “refugee”. I also know how the dictionary defines the word. As a journalist – and a reasonable human being keen on being understood – I use the dictionary, everyday definition that readers will grasp.

Here, for example, is how the UN’s Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights explains the issue, based on the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees:

A crucial requirement to be considered a “refugee” is crossing an international border. Persons forcibly displaced from their homes who cannot or choose not to cross a border, therefore, are not considered refugees, even if they share many of the same circumstances and challenges as those who do. Unlike refugees, these internally displaced persons do not have a special status in international law with rights specific to their situation. The term “internally displaced person” is merely descriptive.

So, “refugees” – if you are an expert in international law – must cross a border. With that comes all sorts of rights and protections. Charity workers and UN officials, charged with protecting such people, use this legalistic definition to help them do their job. I get it.

My dictionary (Shorter Oxford English, sitting in two-volume glory on the side of my desk), however, defines “refugee” thus:

A person driven from his or her home to seek refuge, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, natural disaster etc.; a displaced person

So it is a displaced person, especially – but not necessarily – one who has crossed a border.

It is incorrect to claim journalists are ignorant when they use the term “refugee” instead of IDP. In the English language, they are interchangeable. And any journalist who uses the term IDP will merely be confusing their readers. I would go further, any journalist who uses the term is an idiot for using incomprehensible jargon. (And I’ll not thank anyone who trawls through my stuff for examples of me using it. I may have showed off with it once or twice.)

So maybe, you are thinking, the UN and Red Cross and all these people are experts with big degrees. Wouldn’t it be better to trust them on these things? They know best.

And my response would be that they are not the guardians of the English language.


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