An Ethiopian Uber driver that hasn’t seen his family in ten years after moving to England and a British CitiBank white collar worker living in Hong Kong; a Bangladeshi construction worker working below minimum wage in Kuwait and a digital nomad living in Bali. If we were asked to label each of those people as an immigrant or an expat, our answer would be, in the vast majority, similar: the Uber driver and the construction worker are labelled as immigrants, the Citibank white collar worker and the digital nomad as expats.
The words immigrant and expat are diplomatically assigned almost the same definition by the Oxford dictionary, respectively, “a person who has come to live permanently in a country that is not their own” and “a person living in a country that is not their own.”
The only difference between the definitions seems to be one word: permanently. Expats live in a host country temporarily, while immigrants move there permanently. However, in today’s context it’s noticeable how the two words have different connotations. If we google ‘immigrant’, images of people protesting for their rights are the first to come up. If we google ‘expat’ however, we are shown families happily walking on a beach and businessmen on the way to the airport. This suggests that there are more nuanced differences between the two terms, rooted in class and legacy.
Immigration has historically arisen from precarious conditions, from droughts to civil wars. The immigrant’s tale is always different and always alike: the farewell to family, friends and the homeland to embark on a one-way trip towards the unknown, and with it the chance of a better life. In 2017, a survey by Gallup revealed the countries in which more than half of adults would like to move permanently to a country of their choice. Out of 152 countries surveyed, the countries were Sierra Leone, Haiti, Liberia, Albania, El Salvador, Congo, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Armenia, Honduras, Syria, and Kosovo. The fact that these countries all have a low human development index suggests that immigration is often more of a necessity than a choice.
The majority of expats rely on post-colonial legacy and tailored infrastructure that immigrants do not have, whereas immigrants are left vulnerable
Unlike immigrants, expats do not undergo any process of naturalization and make little to no attempt to integrate themselves with the host country’s culture. This explains the rise of international schools, set up at first for the children of diplomats, military, and personnel for international companies in the second half of the 19th century. These schools follow a curriculum different than their country of residence and are usually private and/or paid for by the employing company. Just like in the French establishments in Southeast Asia and the British Raj, expats have their own schools, their own workplace and, to an extent, their own bars and clubs. An example is former British colony Singapore, where the Tanglin Club was founded in 1865 and is renowned to this day as a social hub for European expats. In some cases, expats even benefit from their own gated communities, especially if they live and work in a less economically developed country.
Expats benefit from a community net that relies on the presence of international companies with a substantial influence in the host country and, arguably, on post-colonial inheritance. It’s undeniable that the French community in Cambodia or Vietnam is incredibly secure because of the infrastructure tailored to the French that has developed over the course of more than 60 years of colonisation.
While the expat is encouraged to preserve their own traditions, the media and governments often frown upon immigrants attempting to preserve theirs. It all connects to the concept of permanence: eventually, immigrants will have to integrate with the host country if they are going to benefit from public services. Immigrants are asked to sacrifice the cultural identity that expats are encouraged to preserve. Involuntary language loss between generations of immigrants is common where bilingual programs in schools are inadequate and the transmission of heritage and language is completely up to the family.
The majority of expats rely on post-colonial legacy and tailored infrastructure that immigrants do not have, whereas immigrants are left vulnerable. The latest school of thought of using the term immigrant and expat interchangeably regardless of ethnic and employment background disregards the legacy of these terms.