Am I an expat or a migrant? What is the difference?

Apparently, by calling myself an “expat” as opposed to a “migrant” I think I have an elevated status. That I am better than others. Oh and probably that I am either a crusty old British colonial living out my years in some post-Raj fantasy or an aging peroxide Daily Mail-reading pensioner living on the Costa, eating full English breakfasts every morning and complaining about why the Spaniards don’t speak proper.

This is the result of a slightly heated “debate” I have just had on what should be a friendly Facebook group I belong to. It is a huge group, made up of people from all different backgrounds, ages, parts of the country etc. We have one thing in common but of course that one thing won’t mean we always see eye-to-eye on everything else. And, it seems, the one thing we don’t all see eye-to-eye on is the term expat.

The discussion started because the term “British expat” has become more well known in our country following the EU referendum. A group of expats (they use that term themselves) are part of a consortium bringing a case to the Supreme court to try and force our government to debate the plan to leave the EU. Many expats were also denied the vote in the referendum because they had lived overseas for more than 15 years, and EU expats in the UK were inexplicably denied it completely. We also hear of expats on the continent who voted for the UK to leave the EU despite the obvious impact this would have on their own lives….

In these cases, the word “expat” isn’t necessarily what I would call an expat – but there again, my feeling is that people should be able to call themselves what they want to. However, what I do object to is being told I think I am better than others because I insist on calling myself an expat and not a migrant. So what is the difference?

Firstly, I am a migrant: someone who moves to find work. Although already I could question that definition as we didn’t move to FIND work but because we HAD work in another country. However, pedantics aside there are certainly different types of migrants and an expat is definitely one of them. Here is the Wikipedia definition of expat:

An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing, as an immigrant, in a country other than that of their citizenship. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).

In common usage the term expatriate is often used in the context of professionals or skilled migrant workers, though it actually applies to all immigrants.[1]

The interesting thing for me here is that technically we may be immigrants but I’m not after technicalities – I am after how we define ourselves. And in the expat community that I inhabit (both in real life and online), few of us call ourselves immigrants.

Now, I know what people will say: you don’t call yourselves immigrants because you think you are better than that. You have an elevated status. Yes, that last one was actually the term thrown at me in my online discussion.

No.

We use that term because it distinguishes us from other types of migrants. As expats we have distinctive needs and by using the term we recognise each other for what we are. It gives us a sense of community (so important when you are away from friends and family). It is also a sort of shorthand understood by most of us who use it, for someone who is here for a while but not forever, often keeping one foot in their home country, usually in a situation where a job, housing, possibly schooling and a relocation package, is provided. When you meet another expat you know that you understand it each other. That you know where you come from and where you are going. That you won’t be here forever but while you are you will probably be looking for friendship and support. That as much as you might love your host country it isn’t and probaby never will be your home so you will always keep some sort of distance from it. That you might try and learn the local language or you might not, but you know that you don’t necessarily HAVE to. That your children will probably never call this place home.

Migrants/economic migrants/immigrants/refugees: all these terms stand alone and come with their own baggage and can be argued about ad infinitum. But most people who I asked agree that a migrant moves for the purposes of finding work and with the intention of staying at least semi-permanently; an immigrant is that person once they are in the country; and a refugee is someone who is forced to move for reasons of security, war, food shortages etc. An expat on the other hand certainly doesn’t set off with the intention of staying in that country, even if they do eventually settle there (at which point they become an immigrant – although what they are once they aquire nationality of that country I don’t know!). An expat also usually has a certain socio-economic status; if nothing else, they have the support of whatever organisation has sent them to their host country and are unlikely to be left completely to their own devices.

Having been quite rattled by the “discussion” I had about this in the supposedly friendly Facebook group, I put the question of how they describe themselves to another group who I knew would be a lot more forgiving of me – the I am Triangle group, made up of people who are living or have lived overseas . I asked them whether they use the term expat to describe themselves and if so, do they think it makes them “better” than others. Note: this is a group made up of many different nationalities and certainly not just Brits, and who have lived or are living in countries all over the world.

The answer came back almost unilaterally – we are expats. This is a term that most of them use and recognise and no, apart from in some cases where translations made the term “expat” into something that it wasn’t in English, most of them did not think it made them “better” than anyone else moving abroad. There was a healthy discussion and most of us understand our privilege in terms of our socio-economic status. But to say that makes us “better” is the same as saying someone who lives in a bigger house than the family down the street thinks they are superior just because they can afford the bigger house.

At the end of the day it is a word that is recognised within our community and is ours to use. If others don’t like it that is for them to worry about, not us. Some people did say they don’t use the word expat and prefer the term “traveller” or similar instead. In my view, that is fine too. We should all be free to use our own description for our own status and people should stop worrying so much how this is viewed amongst those who perhaps have never walked in our shoes.

After all, expat, immigrant, migrant, refugee, traveller: at least we have all have one thing in common. We have all got off our backsides (or in some cases of course been forced off our backsides) and seen something of the world. Maybe some of those who are complaining are just a little bit jealous.

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22 thoughts on “Am I an expat or a migrant? What is the difference?

  1. I find this topic so interesting. I wrote a post about it too, about three years ago: http://2summers.net/2014/03/16/an-american-migrant-in-johannesburg-2/. I just reread the post now, and it’s funny…At the end of the post I decided I’m actually a migrant more than anything. But today, having been here for more than six years, I still find myself defaulting to the word expat even though I really don’t fit the literal definition. I think it’s because, as you’ve hot on here, it’s the term that other people understand most easily when I try to explain why I’m here. anyway, thanks for prompting me to think about this again.

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  2. I always see myself as an expat since I am never in one place for more than a few years. A migrant sounds so final, say someone who has settled and adopted a new ‘home’ country. As you say, it is a shame the two words divide something great we all have in common, J x

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  3. This is a difficult one. I posted about this a long time ago, and felt like I also identified as an expat because it was the job that led us here, we didn’t move here with the intention of looking for work. Now I generally just say we’re Americans living abroad in England since it avoids a touchy subject.

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    • For much of the time it just isn’t a subject that comes up very much. It only really pierces the average person’s daily experience when we have something like we have where British expats have been denied a vote in the referendum. At this stage you have people who don’t know much about these things all weighing in with their tuppence worth….

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  4. I wrote about this last year, the debate is complex and ongoing and, in the UK at least, hijacked by factions to push their political agendas. I find it very difficult to understand how people can believe that expats are ‘superior’. It is a state of transient being in a country as opposed to a more permanent relocation. I have been an expat all my life, except in the UK where I am an immigrant. People have always given me a double take when the question comes up and I explain I am an immigrant, many people think the word should not apply to people like me, white, culturally comfortable, RP accent, married to a British man.
    Saudi allows for no immigration, unless you are a Saudi National (passed along the male line only although they are looking into allowing Saudi women married to foreigners to pass on their nationality) you are an Expat if you sweep the streets and you are an expat if you run a successful multinational; there is no immigration. A friend has been here over 50 years, since he was 1 year old. He speaks perfect Arabic, is culturally more Arabic than anything else and will remain an Expat here to the end of his days.

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  5. I love this! I absolutely agree with your definitions and have been thinking about it related to our current situation as well. I’ve always considered us expats. We left the US with the intention of coming back and while we have since moved countries, it was always with the intent of going back. To me, an immigrant isn’t planning to return and is settling in their new country. Now that we are buying a house, does that mean we are immigrants even though as far as we are concerned, it’s not forever? We “plan” to leave here after our oldest finishes school (perhaps after the youngest, but we’ll see) in about 5 1/2 years. I say that means we are still expats since we don’t plan to stay forever.

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  6. So fascinating. I sort of almost understand the reason some people scoff at the term expat used by expats as something “better.” Because typically expats are better off than immigrants or migrants, since so many are sponsored by their companies or employers and get their housing paid for as well. This certainly doesn’t mean we see ourselves as something better. It’s just a certain type of migrant worker with a slightly better safety net. But we do, if not on purpose, make up our own little group, and perhaps see ourselves distinct from other immigrant groups. For instance, if the Filipino maids in Singapore had called themselves expats, that would have seemed a bit weird, even though aren’t they precisely that? But no one would have grouped them together with us other expats. So there is a certain social standing associated with the term. And I guess we have to live with the image of the spoiled expat wife sipping her cocktail poolside, whether we want to or not:)

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  7. I have been embroiled in this issue via my blog too. I actually named my blog http://africaexpatwivesclub.com/ as a tongue-in-cheek reference to this fraught-with-controversy term. It really does bring out a strong reaction in people and as Eva says, we are saddled with the stereotype of painting our nails in the sun, so let’s just embrace it shall we?
    The fact is that we are migrants, but still very much at the mercy of local government laws which allow us residency and work permits dependent on criteria such as how much we invest in the country and how many people our businesses employ. Plus these permits must be reapplied for every 2 years or we face eviction. In fact our official status is Kenya is ‘alien’. We pay local taxes on earnings in full and are not eligible to claim any benefits as regards pension or healthcare, since that particular social security safety net is simply not here. (Nominally systems are in place but none of them work for effectively Kenyans as underfunding and corruption is terrible).
    Is the stigma of the term ‘migrant’ somehow connected with the fact that people see migrants as benefiting from the good will of tax paying benefactors of their host country, in terms of payouts, schools, healthcare? Sorry for rambling and stirring this debate!

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  8. I have been embroiled in this issue via my blog too. I actually named my blog http://africaexpatwivesclub.com/ as a tongue-in-cheek reference to this fraught-with-controversy term. It really does bring out a strong reaction in people and as Eva says, we are saddled with the stereotype of painting our nails in the sun, so let’s just embrace it shall we?
    The fact is that we are migrants, but still very much at the mercy of local government laws which allow us residency and work permits dependent on criteria such as how much we invest in the country and how many people our businesses employ. Plus these permits must be reapplied for every 2 years or we face eviction. In fact our official status is Kenya is ‘alien’. We pay local taxes on earnings in full and are not eligible to claim any benefits as regards pension or healthcare, since that particular social security safety net is simply not here. (Nominally systems are in place but none of them work for Kenyans as under funding and corruption is terrible).
    Is the stigma of the term ‘migrant’ somehow connected with the fact that people see migrants as benefiting from the good will of tax paying benefactors of their host country, in terms of payouts, schools, healthcare? Sorry for rambling and stirring this debate!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi – thank you for this debate, it kind of helps to see that the terms are fluid and we all have our own perspectives on the subject, personally, I see myself as a person that was curious about the world and chose to bridge several cultures to both understand the world and myself. I find it enriching and enlightening. I also meet a lot of migrants, immigrants, refugees through my work, and although in many cases they did not have much choice due to political or economical circumstances, they too belong to the category of the people who just have to push the boundaries a little, to explore, to sacrifice the home comforts, survivors and grafters…I don’t know – is it the future of humanity to be prepared to look beyond the horizons to survive or progress? Is the world getting smaller in our minds, are we prepared for multiple identities? On the other hand, multiculturalism is such an old concept – Egyptians, Romans, Mongols, Austro-Hungarians…they all relied on foreign imports, exports, labour and multilingual trade…I think this thing is cyclical – there are times in history when it is accepted and other times when it generates animosity. We are in for a difficult period now, I feel…And I feel for British expats when it comes to deciding new residency rules – it may hit them hard – one can not imagine Europe with visa regime and border controls anymore!

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  10. Thanks for this article. I’ve thought about this before as well. I consider myself an expat in the general understanding of the word, but at the same time I that’s not really a word that I feel comfortable using in my daily life for the reasons you mentioned. I’m Canadian, and I usually just say, “I’m living in Japan.” It sounds strange to say out loud that I’m an expat or an immigrant. I don’t know how permanently I will stay in Japan, but I usually just say, “I’m Canadian, but I’m have permanent residence.” That sounds a bit more status neutral.

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  11. I have always felt that I am an expat. 1. Because I am not sure how long I will be residing in the country I am living in right now (France). 2. Because I know I chose to come here. I feel like immigrant, refugee, etc. is because it was a “have to” situation. The word migrant to me feels like someone who now lives in the country permanently. Who knows? Potentially in the future I will start saying I am a migrant if I end up deciding to stay and live in France (which with my story, seems unlikely but we can never plan life, can we?). Thank you for writing this article and making me think more about the definition of these words as a fellow “expat”.

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