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What’s the difference between a migrant and an expat?

Living like a Parisian. theendup/

Nepalis, Indians, Americans, Syrians and Pakistanis all have something in common: they were the top five migrant groups who received family-related visas to the UK in the year to March 2016. But while US citizens coming to join a family member who is already in Britain are often called “expatriates” or “expats”, the others are often portrayed as “migrants” – mainly because of the country of their birth.

Americans, like other migrants, move to be with a partner, to look for or to take up employment, or to study. My research on their motivations has shown that far more migrate to join a partner than arrive with a job contract in hand.

The UN defines a migrant as anyone who has moved out of his or her “country of usual residence”. Yet the media and others seem to maintain an artificial division of the world’s mobile individuals into expatriates, from wealthier countries, and migrants, from less well-off countries.

The word expatriate does have a clear technical meaning: a person on an international intra-company transfer, with an income and benefits package and particular tax provisions, a status which applies to only a minority of migrants from the so-called “Global North” – which includes OECD countries in the southern hemisphere such as Australia. But in recent years, the term has been expanded to all of those from the Global North living in another country, despite a growing recognition of how hypocritical this is.

A Turkish kebab store owner in Berlin or a Ghanaian cardiac surgeon at a London hospital will be called migrants. A Canadian banker in London, on the other hand, is more likely to be called an expat, as is an American in Paris, teaching English by the hour.

When applying this label, income and skill level are less relevant than the power relationship between the two countries. People are often considered expatriates, a term which is perceived by most as connoting a higher social status, if they come from a country that is “equal” or “higher” in terms of GDP or international reputation, than if they come from one that has a “lesser” status.

Americans in Paris

My research with Americans in Berlin, London and Paris confirms that when it comes to integration and identity, there is little difference between them and migrants from countries, such as Turkey or India, seen as more typical origins of migrants.

All migrants have various levels of integration and naturalisation in their new countries of residence. Some will also be more observant than others in maintaining cultural traditions and political engagement with their country of origin. Hybrid identities are common.

I carried out 115 interviews with Americans, and collected 900 responses to a survey about Americans’ experiences of migrating to and living in Europe. Some of the participants, often those who had married local nationals and did not intend to return to the US, clearly identified as immigrants – but most did not. They largely understood “immigrant” or “migrant” in a 19th century American sense – a permanent immigrant to the US who needed to leave his or her home, had cut off ties with his or her home country, and set about integrating into America.

Today’s American migrants do not, for the most part, move out of desperation – in the way that migrants from other parts of the world are doing. However, as a woman in London told me, “I’m from a family of immigrants”, which to her was the “notion [in the US] of … give me your tired, your hungry, your poor”.

I guess I’m an immigrant

This understanding affected how Americans saw themselves, as one woman told me:

Am I an immigrant? No, because I’m not here permanently. I’m a short-term immigrant.

Another man in Berlin told that me he was not an immigrant, despite his permanent stay there, “because I’ve made no attempt at all to become German”.

Hybrid identities. danielo/

Yet neither did they clearly identify as “expats”, with one person saying “an expat to me is someone who is sort of wealthy and a bit of a snob”. Another participant drew on integration to make a distinction, saying “I think an immigrant is basically going to try to absorb culture. Whereas an expat is basically going to hold on to his former culture.” One woman – who spoke fluent German and had a German partner – told me:

I guess I am [an immigrant]. But both seem kind of negative. They feel negative. If I said expat, it seems it feels negative, if I say I’m an immigrant it also feels negative to me somehow. But I guess I am.

Few of those I interviewed identified as expats, yet many still used the term to refer to other Americans and others from the Global North. As one woman in Berlin noted: “It’s kind of a weird word. I only use it because other people use it. I never thought of myself as an expat.”

The majority of those I interviewed identified as “Americans living overseas”, albeit sometimes overlapping with identification as an expat, migrant, or both. Most felt well settled in their new countries, the majority had no firm plans to return to the US, and nearly a quarter had dual nationality.

All of those who move to another country – whether to join a partner or to look for or take up a better-paying or more fulfilling job – are migrants of some kind. Subdividing them on the basis of country of origin, and focusing on their difference, is ultimately counterproductive. An excessive focus on relatively small groups of migrants who are perceived to be problematic perpetuates negative stereotypes, which in turn makes integration more difficult, both for the migrants themselves and for the communities welcoming them.

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