What do you see when you read the word ‘expatriate’?
A well-dressed, young multilingual European man with a tertiary education and lofty career ambitions?
What about ‘migrant’?
A desperate father crossing the English Channel in damp, muddied clothes crawling to shore, looking for his missing daughter?
Why do these two images inspire different responses? The answer is complex, but ultimately lies in Europe’s colonial history.
From ex patria to expatriate
‘Expatriate’ originates from the Latin words ‘ex’ (‘outside of’) and ‘patria’ (one’s country). It was initially defined as anyone who left their country or was exiled from it. During the European colonial period, ‘expatriates’ referred to colonial officers who travelled to overseas colonies. For example, British colonial officers who were expatriated to India were stationed there temporarily with the intention of returning to Britain.
In a similar vein, the modern-day expatriates live abroad to seek new socioeconomic opportunities – a job promotion, a cultural experience, an exotic adventure – with the eventual intention of returning to their home country with the skills and knowledge they gained from their journey. Their migration is voluntary and based on their career and/or their personal interest in living abroad.
Although ‘expatriate’ describes a specific migrant type, the term is absent from international migration laws and policies. By contrast, ‘immigrant’ features prominently in legislative documents, despite not having a set definition in international law. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines an immigrant as an individual who migrates and resides outside their country of residence with the intention of settling abroad permanently, from the perspective of the country of arrival. Similarly, the term ‘migrant’ has numerous contested definitions and has been used interchangeably with ‘immigrant’. However, a migrant is often understood as an individual moving from place to place – within a country or across a border – for temporary, and usually low-paying, work. Migrants may also travel to host countries outside of legal immigrant frameworks and may not have the legal right to work in host countries.
Migrating on different paths
Different experiences and paths to migration are shaped by our global history.
Researchers argue that western expatriates still benefit from the legacies of colonial history. When European and American expatriates go abroad, they do not face the same socioeconomic hurdles as other immigrants from formerly colonised nations. This is due to the fact that their nationality offers them privileges in a system of power shaped by Europe’s colonial past, as well as present socioeconomic global inequalities. These expatriates can afford to move abroad and have greater access to education and employment opportunities that facilitate their integration. Furthermore, they are not usually expected to learn local languages to fit into their host society.
For example, researcher Pauline Leonard’s interview with an expatriate, a British police officer based in Hong Kong, recalls that he was promoted more frequently than his Chinese colleagues and attained a managerial role. His nationality and his race did not limit his socioeconomic mobility but facilitated it.
The same cannot always be said of immigrants and migrants of colour arriving in Europe or North America from the Global South, who often face racism and discrimination in their country of arrival. Additionally, their education and professional training are often not recognised by their country of arrival. They are forced to go back to school, improve their proficiency in the host country’s language, and update their skillset to ensure they live up to the standards of their host society. They must abide by specific immigration processes to progress on their integration path.
By contrast, expatriates tend to receive work permits more easily as they are hired by transnational corporations that support their move to a foreign country. Migrants may also receive work permits from employers abroad but face very different working conditions. Expatriates usually work in a safe and regulated work setting. Meanwhile, migrants often work in dangerous and precarious work environments and may receive minimal support from sometimes exploitative employers. Thus, despite their similarities, expatriates and migrants experience contrasting kinds of temporary employment.
Redressing the migration narrative
On top of an easier immigration experience and more material benefits, expatriates have also benefited from positive public opinion and more favourable media narratives.
Google searches reveal simplistic narratives that paint expatriates positively, and immigrants and migrants negatively. When searching for ‘Expatriates in England’ you will find tips for expatriates moving to the United Kingdom (UK), and pictures of English football fans. For ‘Immigrants in England’, you will see graphs reporting rising immigrant numbers and photographs of English nationalist protests and migrants being stuffed in lorries.
These results celebrate the movement of expatriates, whilst stoking the public’s fear of an unmanageable migrant crisis. They inadvertently reinforce the racialisation of expats as white Europeans or North Americans and conflate the terms immigrant and migrant, despite the fact that they are separate migrant categories.
The flattering framing of expatriates emerged from Europe’s colonial past – it positioned coloniser states at a more privileged position than colonised nations. However, this does not mean the definition of ‘expatriate’ needs to be refined; rather, the usage of the word should be expanded and more widely applied.
The term should not be reserved to solely describe the temporary movement of white western migrants to the Global South. Expatriate stories encompass all kinds of skilled individuals from different racial backgrounds, age groups and professions. These include young professionals who grew up in the Global North and chose to return to their ancestral home in the Global South, as well as skilled workers from the Global South who temporarily migrate to other countries within the Global South.
Although the term ‘expatriate’ is strongly associated with white professionals working abroad, not all expatriates are white, just as not all migrants are ethnic minorities. It is still important to note, however, that many expatriates of colour would not be perceived as expatriates or call themselves expatriates, in part due to the term’s association with whiteness.
Nevertheless, rising economies in China, India and South Africa have resulted in a growing number of ‘South to South’ expatriates, marking a departure from the idea that expatriates could only be white European or North American people. South African expatriates set up the blackexpat.com website to share their experiences as expats of colour. This initiative suggests the term is starting to be employed more widely and inclusively.
To challenge the assumptions held about expatriates, immigrants and migrants, we must acknowledge these terms have been used in simplistic migration narratives. The positive usage of ‘expatriate’ has in turn reinforced negative narratives associated with the words ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant’. Migration terminology should be contextualised to provide informative accounts that consider the profiles of expatriates, immigrants, and migrants, rather than dividing people into ‘good or bad’. This includes examining different motivations to migrate as well as past and present migratory trends and patterns across borders and within countries.
Corrie Macleod completed an MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies and an MLib Arts majoring in Anthropology at Bristol University. Her research focuses on local approaches to migrant integration in North America and Europe. She previously interned at the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) National Center for Immigrant Integration Policy. Her work spans migration, integration and education policy as well as grassroots efforts to promote racial equity. Outside the migration field, she curates Spotify playlists to soundtrack her evening walks.