My Story 

When I was still a teenager, I accepted a job working in Mallorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean Sea. At the time I had no idea that there was such a large British community living there. In addition to this, I was shocked that many of them did not speak a word of Spanish despite sometimes residing 20 years on the island. But there was something else that made me feel deeply uncomfortable – the way they talked about immigrants. 

Immigrants were largely a hot topic of conversation amongst Brits in Spain, especially since the Brexit referendum was fast approaching. “We need to leave the European Union because immigrants are ruining our country, they don’t respect our culture”. This was a very common stance. When asked about my views, I would simply tell people that as an immigrant I didn’t feel like I was in a position to deny anyone the right to live and work in my own country. Just as I was not denied the right to live in Spain. But to my surprise, people would often remind me “But it’s different, you’re an expat”.

I had always grown up believing that expat was a word for people temporarily abroad, on short term contracts. But it became apparent that most of the Brits I knew in Mallorca considered themselves expats. This sparked my curiosity. What exactly was the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

What Does Expat Mean?

Image by Maria Oswalt from Unsplash 

Expat is an abbreviation of the word ‘expatriate’. 

According to the Oxford dictionary, “expat/expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country”. Their example phrase being “a British expat who’s been living in Amsterdam for 14 years”. This doesn’t sound very temporary to me. While it has to be noted that the definition of immigrant implies that it is someone permanently living in another country, there is no clear indication of when someone is considered an immigrant. At what point are they considered permanent?

It’s also worth noting that we still call asylum seekers, who are crossing borders looking for safe passage, illegal immigrants. So the word is generally accepted as appropriate for anyone who has no current plans to return to their country of birth. If not, surely the correct term would be ‘illegal expats’. 

It seems that the age-old argument that an ‘expat’ is temporary and an ‘immigrant’ is permanent comes from a lack of clarity more than anything else. As a fellow activist once rightly pointed out, why is it that an American soldier stationed in Germany or a British entrepreneur living in Singapore due to their company’s wishes would be considered expats? And yet a doctor from Afghanistan who is in the UK working, but has plans to return home whenever the situation improves, is considered an immigrant?

Furthermore, according to expatriate and immigrant are BOTH synonyms of the noun ‘migrant’. In other words, they share the same meaning.

So Why Do Many People Avoid The Word Immigrant?

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According to linguistic, the words most frequently associated with immigrants include ’illegal’, ‘undocumented’ and ‘poor’. Meanwhile, the words most frequently associated with expat include ‘local’, ‘popular’ and ‘established’. Therefore the word immigrant has predominantly negative connotations as opposed to the word expat.

When I talk about this topic, a lot of people tell me that an expat is someone who brings money into the country. Whereas an immigrant is someone who comes with nothing in order to work. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is the case. I think it further showcases just how much the negative stigma has affected public opinion when it comes to the word expat.

Often people will ask why it’s important if some people feel more comfortable calling themselves expats. Unfortunately, by doing that and avoiding the word immigrant – we are suggesting that immigrant is a bad word. And further validating these negative and unfair preconceptions.

Does This Double Standard Exist in Other Cultures?

It is important to mention that my point of view reflects my experience in the western world. The other day I spoke about this topic to a Lebanese friend who spent a portion of his life living in Saudi Arabia, to which he pointed out: “In Saudi Arabia and ‘gulf’ countries, foreigners of all nationalities are considered expats, never immigrants. The reason is that you will never gain nationality even if you were born and spent your entire life there”. 

What Can We Do in Order To Break The Stigma Surrounding The Word Immigrant?

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First and foremost, I think that we as foreigners should try using the word immigrant more when we are referring to ourselves. It’s a small step, but we need to challenge people’s perception of what an immigrant is. Additionally, I think we should challenge publications aimed at foreigners to reconsider their use of the word ‘expat’.

We should also make groups of foreigners in Portugal more inclusive. I often come across groups such as ‘expats in Portugal’ which are mostly catering for a certain class of immigrants. If you belong to one of these groups, I would encourage you to welcome all of your immigrant friends, in particular refugees, with open arms.

If you really want to support all immigrants in your local community, you may consider becoming a buddy for SPEAK. This is a great way to allow immigrants and refugees to integrate into your culture and feel more at home.

Breaking The Stigma About Immigrants

While I believe we have a long way to go, since discussing the topic on social media I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received, the feedback and even the constructive criticism. People’s willingness to engage in the ongoing conversation surrounding the negative stigmas and stereotypes that are associated with immigrants has humbled me – hopefully, we can make these stigmas a thing of the past.

What Do You Think?

Is there an equivalent for the word expat in your language? Do the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ share the same significance in your countries? Let us know in the comments.

Author: Alexander Black

Alexander is a British/ Irish activist. Having spent his entire adult life living in Iberia pursuing a career in tourism, he is passionate about social politics, particularly surrounding the topic of immigration.

2 Replies to “An Expat Is An Immigrant. Here’s Why.

  1. If we’re being honest, the word “expat” is used to refer to white people living in foreign countries. Black people living in Spain for example (regardless of where they came from) are never considered expats. Incidentally, economics aren’t considered for white people in such situations.

    1. As far as I am concerned, an ‘ex-pat’ IS an immigrant, whether they like it or not. This word has been dreamed up in order to show the so- called ‘superiority’ of white people. By calling themselves ‘ex-pats’ and NOT immigrants, they show their innate racism for all to see.

      They have the gall to complain about immigrants in the UK, yet there are many immigrants with brown and black skin who can speak multiple languages and are hard working..

      As for the white immigrants (the ‘ex-pats’) they can’t even speak a word of Spanish – or any other language of whatever country they happen to reside in.

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