Expats vs Immigrants


The dictionary meaning of expatriation is "to remove oneself from residence in one's native land, one who has taken up residence in a foreign land". The dictionary meaning of immigration is "to enter and settle in a country or region to which one is not native".

The two terms clearly have no distinction yet; the latter suffers from a form of stigmatisation, which at its very worst can lead to a torrent of abuse. Whereas the former has no derisory meanings, is often a celebrated term and is perhaps a term this writer doubts many even know of. So why is it that someone who has expatriated to another country is held to greater esteem than that of someone who has immigrated?

Perhaps the difference lies within colour. Stereotypically, 'expats' are middle aged, white males whereas an immigrant would be deemed to be someone of colour. However, with social vilification of Eastern European's and in particular the Polish migrants, it seems colour is not the main focus for the distinction but rather ethnicity and finance. In order to be seen as an expat, you need to come from a nation that has a good reputation, as well as being middle class. Anything less and you are just a common immigrant.

A quotation from The Guardian's Peter Matanle's supports this. "So, a Briton resident in France might refer to himself as an expat, but call a Polish resident of France an immigrant, as if somehow there is a distinction to be made; although he may later refer to someone from the USA as an "American expat", implying that there is a sort of hierarchy of foreignness".

However, this still does not explain the difference in status between the two terms. Regardless of ethnicity or finance, an individual should still be able to contribute to the state he or she is residing in. Especially as since World War Two, immigrants to Britain have shown an ability to assimilate into the culture by learning the language, being able to work for a living, co-operating with the locals and having families that repeat the aforementioned cycle. In fact, it could be argued that 'expats' are much less likely to acclimatise in a foreign land for doing the exact opposite of what is mentioned in this paragraph.

Matanle provides the perfect description. "Speaking only from personal experience, there seems to be communities of Britons overseas that somehow isolate themselves from their adoptive societies and associate mostly with other Britons, referring to each other routinely as expats. They may rarely learn the local language beyond basic survival phrases, and rarely interact with people from their host culture except when ordering in restaurants, requiring assistance, being stopped, or going shopping.

In some areas, such as rural France or Italy, where there is a critical mass of British "expats" in the locale, enterprising individuals even set up businesses to cater to British residents - selling such things as Marmite and Jaffa cakes, giving advice and assistance with bureaucracy, providing home-visit English language hairdressing, or help with setting up satellite TV, personal computers with Skype, and so on".

Whilst I must stress there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing your own culture to a foreign country, (we all enjoy curry and the Notting Hill Carnival) it is another way of contributing to your adoptive country. Although not representative of all Britons abroad, the paragraph above demonstrates the bullish behaviour that is associated with the term 'expat'.

It has the connotation of superiority based upon affluence and ignorance. It diminishes the positive influence ordinary immigrants have on their adoptive countries by creating a fallacy of 'expats' being some sort of super immigrant; a middle class group that gains all the benefits of immigration without a lot of the graft and certainly without the negative connotations and stigma.

Expats v immigrants - what do you think?

Fortune Achonna

Archived Comments

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Good insight

I think the analysis of whether you are considered an expat or an immigrant is a very powerful one - as an expat it is assumed you are an an asset to the area, part of an exclusive club, whereas an immigrant always has the negative connotations and immigrants living in close proximity to each other would not be considered an exclusive club but a ghetto!!

I had never considered this

I had never considered this before - the difference between how an expat and an immigrant are perceived. This article shows how language can be used to perpetuate and reinforce social and racial divisions.

Anil Patel, Former Immigrant, now Proud Expatriate