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Post-Katrina: What It Means to be Displaced

Commentary

In March 2006, the U.S. Human Rights Network launched the “Hold the U.S. Accountable” campaign.” It argues that those Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina are neither “evacuees” nor “survivors”—terms that carry little international recognition or obligation. Instead, under the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, they are “internally displaced persons” or IDPs—the second largest internally displaced population in the Western Hemisphere.

If the United States had employed this human rights framework domestically, as it has done within the international context, displaced Gulf Coast residents would be entitled to significant benefits.

IDPs? Evacuees? Survivors? It may seem like a trivial matter of semantics, but there’s much more at stake. Defining Katrina’s victims as IDPs establishes the government’s obligations to protect the rights of the Gulf Coast residents who were dispersed across the country.

Those obligations are explicitly laid out in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998. Compliance with this framework is not unprecedented. The United States Agency for International Development has developed a comprehensive strategy, based on the Guiding Principles, to address the special concerns of IDPs.

If the United States had employed this human rights framework domestically, as it has done within the international context, displaced Gulf Coast residents would be entitled to significant benefits. For example, they would be entitled to housing throughout all phases of their displacement, rather than the six, nine, or 12 months arbitrarily permitted by FEMA. Furthermore, the Guiding Principles explicitly prohibit discrimination, particularly “when the affected areas have preexisting patterns of discrimination.”

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Interstate 10 in Metarie, Louisiana, on August 31, 2005. This area was one of the last unflooded passable highway spots and a main evacuation station.

In the wake of Katrina, the pre-existing poverty and exploitation of poor communities of color— compounded by the devastation and displacement wrought by the hurricanes and the institutionalized racism woven throughout American society— created a discriminatory relief effort. This discrimination was illuminated on television screens around the world and continues to manifest itself in the post-disaster assistance and reconstruction efforts.

An example is the governmental assistance in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of housing in the Gulf Coast region, which discriminates against lower-income renters. Only homeowners are eligible for compensation under the state homeowner assistance plans funded by the federal government’s community development block grants. And current funding leaves out those homeowners, predominately low-income households, who did not possess adequate insurance before the storm and who today have few resources to draw on for rebuilding.

The idea of Katrina victims as IDPs is hard for most Americans to swallow. Although we recognize those displaced by the tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquakes in Pakistan, or the conflict in the Sudan as IDPs, few Americans acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by the hurricanes are also IDPs, in need of protection and assistance throughout their displacement. And few of the proliferating reports on the disaster—by governmental and non-governmental agencies, private institutions, grassroots organizations, scholars, and activists—use a human rights yardstick to measure either the post-disaster reconstruction efforts or the extent to which the U.S. government has complied with international norms regarding people displaced by conflict or natural disasters.

But why shouldn’t the rights of IDPs apply to people in the United States? If the fundamental rights of displaced people apply in countries far less able to cope with such disasters, they certainly apply here.


Ajamu Baraka is executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, where Tonya M. Williams is a senior fellow and co-coordinator for the “Hold the U.S. Accountable Campaign.” 

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