We should be careful what we call people - names may do them damage

Written by Wordsmith on .


Every time a news camera homes in on the face of a very young Syrian boy or girl as they are marched across borders and herded onto trains and buses, or shiver in the cold of European rain, I think back to the DPs who came to our village in rural Surrey after the war - that's the second world war not the Yugoslav war or the Iraq wars.

DP was the shorthand term for the millions of people who had been displaced by the war and its hungry aftermath - they were 'displaced persons'.

Near to the village, a wartime camp recently evacuated by American soldiers was home - a temporary home - to some Polish DPs.  I was probably six or seven (1948 or 1949) and was never told how they got there or why they had been displaced.

But I do remember so clearly being taken to meet them by a lady who was teaching them English.  She hailed from Westmoreland, was a spinster, somewhat eccentric and drove an Austin Seven as though it was a sports car.

The DPs made us cups of the strongest tea I had ever tasted and gave us biscuits they had cooked somehow on their little electric hot plate.  I don't think they used the term 'home-baked' - home was many, many miles away.

After I had sat in one lesson, the women of the hut took us out onto the surrounding heathland to look for edible fungi.  The lady taught them the word 'toadstool' which made them laugh a lot.

We found several baskets of fungi, but did not stay to see them cooked or eaten.

Today we would probably be told that those DPs were migrants - some newspapers would tell us they were economic migrants though how someone can be an economic migrant who has lost his or her livelihood is beyond me.

It strikes me that 'displaced persons' is a better and more accurate phrase than either migrant or refugee.  They have been displaced - displaced against their will and without being able to prevent their displacement.  Perhaps the abbreviated form of DP is too dehumanising - so let us stick to 'displaced person'.

Those Syrian children have been displaced by civil war.  They bear no fault for this, they cannot be blamed for it - they have been displaced.