With an ever increasing number of people immigrating each year, the language of migration has become ever more confusing. But what does it really mean to be an ‘expat’? And are expats actually all that different from immigrants?
Although it’s easy to think that ‘expat’ is in reality interchangeable with ‘immigrant’, there is a nuanced difference in meaning between the two. By definition, to be an immigrant is to move to another country to live there permanently, whereas expats intend to return to their native country after a period of time, often after completing a work assignment.
However, these terms are increasingly misused, with ‘expat’ being used almost solely to describe Brits and Americans living abroad, regardless of the length or permanence of their stay. This Anglo and American-centric focus has its roots in the origin of the term. ‘Expatriate’ only widely came into use in the mid-1900s and was used to describe British civil servants sent (often with little choice) to work abroad in exchange for generous benefits, such as schooling for their children, and financial compensation. This led to the term being associated with middle-class Brits and Americans working abroad, who were provided by their employers with the means to have a very comfortable lifestyle, often separate from the lives and communities of the citizens of the countries in which they resided.
However, this history does not make its current use any less problematic. With an increase in immigration globally, many non-US or UK citizens are now making the move to work abroad. Yet, despite the definition of expat applying to all those who intend to return to their native country, the term is still almost exclusively used to describe white, middle-class professionals, whilst immigrant or foreign worker is reserved for those who are not white and/or those who are working class and are often working in blue or pink-collar jobs.
Expats are often considered to be in some way superior to those labelled as immigrants or foreign workers, largely due to how society more widely perceives class and race. The term ‘expat’ thereby marginalises BAME and working class people by excluding them from this so-perceived ‘superior’ group, and neglects the value they bring to the countries they have immigrated to. The term is a sign of the privilege – whether that be white privilege or economic privilege – that allows these ‘expats’ to live abroad without the expectation to integrate into the society in which they now live; an expectation which is unavoidable for BAME and working class people, for whom integration is often not a choice, but a necessity. The perception of expats as being in some way ‘better’ also feeds into negative stereotypes about BAME and working class people, further perpetuating inequality.
Solving these problematic ideas embedded within the term ‘expat’ won’t be possible overnight. However, we can start to challenge the racist and classist ideas associated with the term by no longer referring to people as expats, but instead as immigrants, allowing us to begin to remove the divide between different groups of foreign workers and the inequalities caused by such a divide. And if that makes self-described expats uncomfortable, then good. Hopefully it will lead them to question what their issues with being an ‘immigrant’ actually are, allowing us to push for progress by challenging these issues at their heart.