'Migrant' vs 'Expat' – what do you consider yourself?

Although in face of recent developments an angry, political piece would be suitable, I have had this topic in my head for some months now and will try to divert your attention a little bit from tragic, inhumane events in Europe and around the world with a hopefully lively discussion thread.

The definitions of a 'migrant' and an 'expat' are very similar often referring to persons living and working in a country other than that of their citizenship. However, the practical usage of the terms is different and controversial. While an author for the blog of the Wall Street Journal referring to the situation in Hong Kong sees the reason for being labelled an 'expat', immigrant or migrant in social class, country of origin and economic status, a contributor to The Guardian identifies mainly racist dynamics behind the terminology. According to the latter author this racist system also hinders a highly qualified African 'migrant' in Europe to belong to the group of 'expats'. This discussion has also come up in the Wrocław Expat group on Facebook following The Guardian article and a survey done by a student of the MA programme in Intercultural Mediation, lead by Adam Mrozowicki. Some of the Wrocław Expats understand their group name as referring to a qualified worker who is sent by his company to another country for a specific time. This is actually the official definition of an 'Expatriate' in German, but not in English however. In Wrocław the racialised aspect of the terminology is also different to the one The Guardian author referred to, since for example Ukrainian workers would rather belong to the group of 'migrants', whereas the 'expat' group here consists mainly of employees of multinational companies from all over the world with different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In this context the economic status seems to be more decisive than racist dynamics.

As Marie Skłodowska Curie fellows we all move in a rather privileged fashion around Europe, from one EU member state to another, in the terminology of the EU commission we would not be called 'migrants' but mobile EU citizens. We also had the experience of a fellow with a non-EU passport, for whom it was not that easy to travel from one to the other project partner country. In my case the Wrocław Expat group was helpful at the beginning of my stay in Poland and I even found some interviewees through the group and later in Brussels because of where I lived and worked I also rather met people who would commonly be referred to as 'expats', although not necessarily very well off financially on their own terms (for example interns at EU institutions). In order to get into contact with 'migrants' and 'migrant' groups or organizations on the other hand I had to actively seek out these interactions and put some effort into it. Socially engaged people in Brussels and elsewhere however do not like to associate themselves with the term 'expat' and would argue that for solidarity reasons, they understand themselves as 'migrants' too and see no differences. However, this might also mask specific problems facing 'migrants', when the (through citizenship, class or race) privileged ‘expats’ are also considered 'migrants'.

A Bank's advertisement directed at 'expats' in the Brussels underground station Trône

I am very interested in how you experience your European mobile lives and would therefore like to start a discussion thread with you all about this. Maybe this could help our young MA colleague from the University of Wrocław to figure out the difference between a 'migrant' and an 'expat'.

Please contribute to the discussion and let us know:

  • Do you consider yourself a 'migrant', an 'expat' or a mobile EU citizen or maybe none of the above?
  • What factors in your understanding determine if a person is a 'migrant' or an 'expat' or should the term 'expat' be abolished anyways?
  • Is Radek still a 'migrant' or only in the past he used to be a 'migrant' himself? 

P.S.: For anyone who doesn’t get the last question, please watch our very first Theme 2 film production: http://www.changingemployment.eu/Blog/ViewPost/tabid/3428/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/2508/Multimedia-training-at-the-London-Metropolitan-University.aspx 

The Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration

Blog entry of the Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/

Posted in: Migration
Actions: Comments (6)


# Julia
17 August 2015 10:29
I really like the question posed by Karima. Can you be an expat if you come from CEE country? I personally consider mobility as a little bit of a market-driven talk, as it hides the migration stress and lots of social aspects. And at the same time it makes you feel like a 'plug and play' device.
# Karima
08 September 2015 12:18
Thank you Julia, for your comment! I know the feeling you mean of the 'plug and play' device and its very difficult to live up to, but also to get rid off.

Sorry about the late reply... but when you posted this on fb you got a comment basically saying its not that complicated, expats are rich and migrants are poor. Although one might be able to re-coin the terms in that way and maybe this needs to happen, I'm not sure it captures their usage. It looks like these words are only meaningful in context and can change their meaning from one to the other context, as your question indicates too.

What do the others think? Maybe someone has a reference to a different context and how the words are used there?
# Olena Fedyuk
18 September 2015 11:34
I also really enjoyed your blog entry, Karima. I think there is so much packed in it!

For one, the idea that race, class, gender, age are played out differently in specific historical and social context of the local.

Another idea that struck me as particularly important is the temptation of nominal solidarity in the name; I think its a very important thought, as no matter how strenuous it may be to spend time in the airports, hotels and short-term rented flats,the conditions and opportunities for mobility and realization through it are highly fragmented, hierarchy-based and turned into forms of privileges. That indeed can sweep some of these crucial inequalities under the carpet.

But then, what's in the name? In the particular case of the term "expat" I see little but a matter of establishing social prestige. As Karima pointed out, to me, it is hardly even linked to material status as I have known many undocumented "migrants" spending time in low quality jobs but renting whole flats and driving their own cars, while many honest "expats" lived in crammed shared accommodations and had no clue when will they receive next income. The differences in life-styles was as drastic as their material posessions- the former kept low profile and hardly ventured outside of the known paths, the latter would hop on a train with the last 20 Euro in pocket to see yet another European capital and would have no scruples in spending a night in a park for that matter. The former felt constant lingering fear and insecurity, the latter, an immense bold security, that even if all will go wrong, nothing will actually go wrong. To me, the class differences was hidden somewhere deep in the heart of this paradox.

Finally, expat to me, its a term of fashion, and as such, it comes in and out of it. I see no analytical value to it, nor how it can be utilized other than in discourse analysis, where, it does tell worlds on what matters to people.
# Mona (UniOvi)
04 November 2015 21:34
Karima has addressed a fascinating question here and I would love to read from other ESRs how they feel about this: Are Marie Curie fellows expats or migrants or mobile EU citizens?

Personally, I feel like a mobile EU citizen. I agree with Karima that the term expat has a lot to do with social status and race (so maybe I should fit in that category) but for me an expat is someone sent to a foreign country by their company. As I am a German who got a job with a Spanish university in Spain, maybe I could be considered a migrant. However, the mobility requierements in the Marie Curie program do not really allow for an ESR to settle down in the place of work.

However, my own definition might be based on feeling rather than fact. I have lived more than half of the last 2,5 years in Oviedo (but also many months in Belgium and Germany for research) and I am raising two children here (but I did go to my homecountry Germany to give birth in both cases). It´s not that I cannot imagine to settle down in Oviedo with my family. It´s rather that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like the Marie Curie fellowshp ist unlikely to come up twice in the same place.

Oops, this post got rather long, sorry. Fascinating topic. :)


PS. Btw Karima, how do you like the definition of my husband as a mobile EU migrant: he left his life in South America behind to support his wife on her way towards a Phd in Europe and to take German classes in Spain, Belgium, then in Germany, and now again in Spain...

# Sara
22 January 2016 17:23
Indeed, thanks Karima for proposing this really interesting and timely thread of debate ! I have thought a lot about it myself and discussed so many times with people in Brussels !

I noticed foreign people with qualifications, and/or a certain economic or social status put up resistence to define themselves as "migrants". They find they are not entitled, or it is simply not true, for them they are living an enriching experience at their free will, and mobility is more an « investment » that will offer opportunities to them (that was my experience from conversations with Spaniards abroad about "Marea Granate", a social movement that emerged from the new wave of Spanish migrants that moved abroad since the crisis).

When I arrived to Belgium three years ago, I also considered myself rather an "expat" than a « migrant» : I came by choice, with very interesting economic conditions, high education, languages, former mobility experience, a good career project. If we refer to « expat » as social construct and not only a legal concept, I think it echoes these features beyond the idea of « worker sent abroad by a MNC ».

But a paradox raises in the expats world: under the golden face of mobility, many are eventually trapped in a hidden type precariousness based on job insecurity, short-term contracts at the age of 35 (a very common profile in the Brussels' expat world).

I gradually redefined myself as a « migrant », as I reflected on the reasons that brought me here and some hard consequences that mobility had on my personal life. The consciousness came probably too from my particular individual integration experience, habits and interactions with locals, expats and other Spaniards that defined themselves as « migrants ». I realized I felt closer to the latters’ experiences, expectations or frustrations than to any other.

Could the turning point be a certain level of consciousness, or the own perception on one's experience of mobility ? I guess it would make no sense to trace a line between "expat" and "migrant" without taking into account the persons’ own perspective in his/her life context. Which makes Karima’s PhD approach absolutely pertinent!

But then, following Olena, has actually the category of « expat » an analytical potential at all ? Isn’t it just a word put forward by the EU-mobility discourse ? In such case, we could maybe consider an « expat » as a migrant with a particular status (defined by qualifications, background and certain expectations of career opportunities, rather than an actual secure job or economic situation) and without a consciousness of being a « migrant »…


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