Recent articles in The Guardian the Wall Street Journal’s “Expat” blog have discussed the racial implications of certain migrants being called “expats”, while others are labeled “immigrants”. That got me thinking. And that’s always a dangerous thing….
Yes, “expat” has the ring of the exotic about it, and conjures up visions of drinks with journalists, politicians and the “old hands” at The Imperial Hotel, and cheeky comments about the locals, while “immigrant” has the decidedly sweaty quality of steerage about it. But is that all there is to it?
No. It actually gets worse. Expats stand at the top of the heap, while a litany of pejoratives lie beneath. For starters, refugees and asylum seekers are to be pitied, and coddled, or worse, are seen as burdensome – a, drain on the system. But, as much as we lament the systemic strain of refugee populations, and the eyesore of ‘temporary” (hopefully) relocation camps, the lowly immigrant remains the ultimate burden on society. Over time there will be more of them/us than genuine refugees, and there’s little chance that “immigrants” will eventually be resettled somewhere less problematic. For that reason, “immigrants” are seen as the ultimate job stealers and opportunists in a world that’s increasingly perceived to be a zero-sum game.
But how/when do we decide who gets what label? Refugees and asylum seekers are pretty easy to mark, but “expat” versus “immigrant” is more of a gray area. Or, perhaps it’s a white (or at least white-collar) area.
If you come from the U.S., Canada, or Europe, it’s pretty much a mortal lock that you’ll be labeled (and label yourself) an “expat”. If you come from Asia or Central/South America, you will most likely be labeled an “immigrant”, but economic circumstances, class, and physical appearance may temper that somewhat. If, however, you emigrate from Africa to almost anywhere in the world, regardless of your economic status you will almost certainly be tagged as an “immigrant”. And, for Africans, that label doesn’t change over time. African emigrants report that even after decades in their new homes they remain “immigrants” and not “expats”, and are routinely, and systemically, excluded from that classification both bureaucratically and socially.
For “expats” getting together is seen as quaint (if overly insular). Notice you’ll never see postings for the “Berlin (or Dublin or Manchester) Immigrant Meetup Group”, but there are daily expat social events advertised in most major European cities. God forbid we “expats” mix with the locals, or, perish the thought, “immigrants”.
In our zeal to simplify, and not have to think too much about things, we’ve all created an entire class system fully kitted out with perceived worth, value judgments, and even hygiene slurs (witness my earlier steerage quip). To be fair and balanced here, I have to admit that we migrants also do this to ourselves. I certainly identify myself as an “expat”. And, while I do make an effort to use “immigrant” in ways that don’t imply a negative, I’ll admit that I often select emigrant over immigrant because the former is, for some reason, less likely to be judged (if only by me).
To non-migrants the distinction between “expat” and “immigrant” may seem a small thing, but right, wrong, or indifferent, stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum, they are based on something, and they start somewhere.
By the way, you’ll find the Guardian and Wall Street Journal articles here:
Dublin, March 2015
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Finding the “Right” City For You