The majority of expats are white. That said, the term may be extended to well-heeled others – Blacks, Arabs and Asians — who speak English well, and have professional jobs with white friends who include them in their social circles. Africans? Sorry, no.
So what, exactly, is the difference between expats, immigrants and migrants? The answer is virtually nothing – except the elitist perception of the term.
What are the definitions?
Immigrants are defined as those who move to another country and plan on staying. Think of the people crammed into a boat trying to make it across to Europe. Or the refugees from Syria wading through snow at the Canadian border to escape from the United States before they get deported. “They” don’t want to go back to where they came from. And they” are often perceived as poor, uneducated and desperate.
Expats, on the other hand, have status. They may be married to a local or have plans of starting a business. And, yes, they do take jobs that might otherwise go to a national.
How about the migrants? They are people who move from one place to another in search of work. Migrants are the Mexicans who pick fruit in California and then go back across the border, the nannies from the Philippines who have work contracts or the laborers in Saudi Arabia who return to Thailand when their manual skills are no longer needed.
Expats, however, go from one contract to another in different countries or return “home” with a good bank balance.
In short, being an expat is desirable, exciting, and appealing. Being an immigrant or a migrant is not.
Why should I care about it?
The issues of prejudice, discrimination, classism, sexism, and racism need to be exposed at all levels.
When I went to work at the University of Waikato as a lecturer, for example, I wasn’t an immigrant. Instead, I was simply a Canadian who had moved to New Zealand.
When I crossed over to Australia, a “permeant visa” was stamped into my New Zealand passport at customs.
In both countries, I blended in with people, many of whom had come from England or other European countries. We never referred to — or thought of — ourselves as expats, or immigrants or migrants. Why should we have? We lived in cultures that didn’t question us because we were white.
Historically, the majority of people in North America, Australia and New Zealand were economic immigrants or migrant workers. As they took over the countries, however, they didn’t invite the indigenous peoples, the Blacks or the Mexicans to join them. Instead they marginalized these people. So even if a Mexican family has lived in the United States for a couple of generations, they are still thought of — and treated — as immigrants.
What is my situation?
I am a migrant who wants to become an immigrant in Colombia. Since I left Australia at the end of 2008 I have lived in Morocco, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, Colombia and Peru. The periods of time vary from four to 18 months. I support myself my teaching and writing. Although I prefer the latter to the former we are all prostitutes when it comes to work. But that is a topic for another article.
I am currently living in Medellin where the locals refer to me as la gringa de Boston – the name of the barrio – as there aren’t any other foreigners here. Or if there are, they are in hiding.
Although I want to become an immigrant, the visa rules hamper the process as I can only stay in the country for 180-days per calendar year as a tourist. The choices to change my status are limited. The first is to marry a local. Even though I had a number of friends volunteer, it could become complicated and there is no absolute guarantee.
The second option is to invest 200KUSD – cough, cough – and start a business or buy real estate. Another possibility is to pay hideously expensive fees and study Spanish for five years at an approved university. The least attractive option is to teach 48-hours a week for ridiculously low wages at a school that will help English-speakers get visas.
In the other countries, the rule for migrants like me was that I had to leave the country every 90-days and then re-enter. The exception was Cambodia where I could have stayed forever and a travel agency could have arranged my visa for a year at a time.
When I lived in Morocco, for example, I once crossed the border at Ceuta in the entry line, and then walked across to the exit line. I had only been outside the country for 15 minutes, but it was good enough a 90-day stamp.
But the only reason I could do it because I was white and considered an expat. The immigrants and migrants from Africa were not accorded the same treatment and were often turned back.
Generally, I avoid people who call themselves expats. However, from time to time I will attend an InterNations event to remind myself of why I don’t do it more often.
From now on, when I encounter westerners, I am going to ask them if they are an immigrant or a migrant.
I suspect the inquiry won’t be terribly well received as it questions the romantic illusion of “living the dream.”
If you agree that the word expat needs to be dumped, please feel free to use the question. It may get some people to start thinking about narrowing the divide between “them” and “us.” And in the end we are all either “immigrants’ or “migrants.”