“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad."
The Innocents Abroad
One of the most asinine acts of those who go abroad from developed countries is this attempt to dodge terms. People who come from less exalted nations are immigrants; we are expatriates.
A recent article in The Guardian by an African journalist made that point in no uncertain terms, and it was about time, too. There is nothing neutral here; "immigrant" and "expatriate" are loaded with meaning. Reflecting on why one would choose one or the other (or why we allow other people to use one or the other when referring to us) reveals not just global hierarchies that promote privilege for some, but also our relationships with both our home and host countries.
Distancing Starts at Home: Mawuna Koutonin challenged developed countries and their migrants on how they use these terms as distancing tactics: "Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’."
As hard as that it is to hear, he's right. The starting point is the attitude toward immigrants in the country of origin; the world in which they were the natives. In developed countries there is always an archetype of The Immigrant - usually someone who comes from a developing country. Talk about immigration in the US, and it's all about people from Central and South America In France, it's the image of someone from North Africa.
The general perception is that immigrants are a problem to be solved and that is just as true of the citizens who are ostensibly pro-immigration as it is of those who are adamantly against letting them in in the first place. This position of privilege is taken for granted and is justified by any number of questionable rationalizations of which the most common is simply the "we were here first" argument.
Signalling the Host Country: When a first world person moves to another country, all the images and perception of immigrants informed by the home country debates travel with him. On top of those come the host country attitudes toward immigrants which may be hauntingly familiar: debates about integration, the burden on the social service networks, and competition for jobs. What the developed country migrant is trying to convey toward host country citizens when he uses words like "expatriate" and "guest" is: I am not a problem and your internal immigration debates have nothing to do with me.
It is one group of migrants agreeing with the native citizens that immigrants are a problem and then trying to get themselves put in a different category in order to get better treatment. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Koutonin talks about certain groups enjoying "the privileges of a racist system" and he's right that this happens. However, the granting of such privileges remains in the hands of the host country nationals and can be something of a crapshoot. Strenuously insisting on superior difference can be a sign of insecurity - having left the relative safety of the home territory, all migrants are unsure how they will be treated in the destination country.
Signalling the Home Country: There is another reason why someone from a developed country might prefer "expatriates" to "migrants" and this comes from the fact that the home country is developed and relatively powerful in the world. Powerful enough to reach into another country and make demands of its nationals there. Some of these countries are not happy at all with citizens who leave and they try to discern if these migrants/expatriates are just sojourning abroad for a time or if they really have immigrated and are living permanently in another country. Home country government and citizens tend to react badly to the latter; it calls into question their own superiority in the hierarchy of nations.
In this context "expat" sends a very different signal than "immigrant". It implies that the migration is a temporary thing and that the individual has some intention of returning at some future time. It has an open-endedness that is very different from the term "immigrant" which is used in a lot of countries (especially in countries of immigration like the United States) to mean permanent settlement and the path to citizenship. It is the rare developed country expatriate/migrant who wants to openly tell the home country, "I am migrating and I am not planning on coming back." There is a hint of danger in that, and fear that a powerful country might decide to act against the emigrants in some way.
It's hard for citizens of developed countries to be stripped of citizenship but that does not mean that the home government cannot indirectly force the issue by making policies that encourage its emigrants to give it up or return home, more or less voluntarily. And there are other repercussions that are entirely within the power of a powerful nation-state to inflict on people whose behaviour it doesn't like. It is a delicate dance and it might surprise Koutonin to know that citizens of developed countries are very wary of their own governments and feel the need to hide their true intentions behind ambiguous language.
Koutonin pulled no punches in his piece which generated over 2000 comments. This is just the beginning of the conversation and let's hope that it continues. If those of us from developed countries living abroad started eschewing the term "expatriate" and started using "migrant" instead, we could do a lot to challenge home and host country assumptions about immigrants and strike a powerful blow against racism wherever we live. The next time we hear someone claiming something about "those damn immigrants" tell him or her that you are one and quietly ask him what his problem is. Do not let him or her off the hook when he replies, "Well, I'm not talking about you."
Oh yes, sir, you are.
Flophouse post from July 2013 about this very topic Expats, Exbrats and Guests.