What is the difference between a migrant and an expat?

23 January
25 January
A group of foreigners live together in a closely bounded area, often seeing each other for dinner or for children’s sporting events. The mothers usually see each other as they drop their children off at their mother-tongue school, sometimes meeting for coffee afterwards if they don’t have a husband coming home for lunch. They’ll usually order in their native language.Another group of foreigners live scattered across the city, meeting once a month for a political meeting. They are all fluent in the language of the host country, often married to locals, and most have jobs, but may use their native language often at work. As integrated as they are, they still like to work together for political aims in their home country, organizing extraterritorial voting, sometimes a protest against politics in their home country, sometimes just for a social event.

Here's the question: what do you call them? You might call them expatriates, you might call them migrants. What nationality did you think I was writing about above? If you thought I was talking about Turks, Pakistanis or Algerians, chances are that your thoughts went to ‘migrants’. If you thought I might be referring to UK citizens, Germans or US citizens, you might rather have thought of ‘expatriate’. Did those sound like “typical” behaviors of migrants? You’re right – they are. (And there are a lot of other behaviors that are “typical” also.) But I wasn’t talking about Turks, Moroccans, Algerians or Pakistanis. I was talking about UK citizens in the first scenario and US citizens in the second. Both are scenes you will routinely see in Brussels, where I live, and in many other cities around the world.So where’s the difference? 

Migrants from the Global North, or OECD countries, tend most often to be referred to as expatriates, especially in Europe, whereas those from the Global South are more often called migrants. Yet my research with US citizens shows that these two groups have a great deal in common. They are often living in a foreign country for a number of years, with uncertain return plans. They share integration challenges – struggling to find work, coping with a new language. Children born abroad often cope with a “neither-nor”, or dual, identity. And perhaps, above all, they are seen as representing either their home country or their migrant group. The stereotypes and assumptions assigned to each group are of course different, but the phenomenon and mechanism of being identified first as belonging to a group and then as an individual is the same. Here is a link to a short piece I wrote, drawing on my research with US citizens in France, Germany and the UK, in which I reflect a bit more on this. 

Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels is the author of Migrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe(Palgrave, 2014)

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