29 – Expats or Immigrants?

Expat:   Expatriate.  A person who lives outside their native country(Oxford Dictionaries, online).    Short for expatriate, which comes from the Latin ex patria, meaning out of the homeland.

Immigrant:   A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country (Oxford Dictionaries, online).

I can’t see a difference in the definitions, at all.  And yet the words appear to be used very differently.  In Spain I have once heard a Dutch woman describe herself as an immigrant, but with that single exception I have only heard European immigrants to Spain describe themselves as expats. 

Yet those same people, often British, DO use the word “immigrant”, and often derogatorily, about people from other countries who have moved to Britain.  Indeed I have frequently heard long rants about “immigrants moving in, living together in clusters, opening their own shops and businesses to cater for each other, and not learning to speak the language”.  Those complaints could very easily be from Spanish people, bemoaning the anglicisation of stretches of the coast, but they aren’t.  They’re from British people criticising groups of expats from other countries, settling in Britain.  Yet have those British immigrants to Spain not done exactly the same?  Often in even greater density on their golf resorts and urbanisations, and with even less willingness to learn the language?

More than three million Brits live abroad, more than from any other European country.  The country that takes the most British immigrants is, not surprisingly, Spain.  The Office for National Statistics reports that in 2010, 350,000 Brits emigrated, and 216,000 people emigrated from other countries to Britain.

At some point it appears that the word “immigrant”, which means nothing more than a change from original location, has come to have negative connotations amongst some people.  At that point, those who perceive the word as negative, needed to use a different word to describe themselves.

Surely the two words are interchangeable?  Expat or immigrant?  I remember the library in a town in Córdoba province offering “English Classes for Immigrants”.  Many British immigrants didn’t attend, as they understood the word to mean that the classes were targeted only at African seasonal workers (who made up the bulk of attendees – until the olive harvest began!).  So to turn that around, I wonder whether those African workers would feel welcome at a lunch event or a coach trip publicised as being for expats?  Yet both words clearly include everyone living outside their original homeland.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to our hosts, the Spanish?

To them we are all “extranjeros” – foreigners.  As far as I can understand, there is no differentiation by the Spanish between foreigners from different parts of the world or from different racial backgrounds.  Then of course there is the slightly derogatory “guiris” – but the Spanish apply that equally to foreigners, Spanish city-dwellers spending weekends in the countryside, people from a town the other side of a river, or even the fans of a visiting football team!


© Tamara Essex 2012



12 thoughts on “29 – Expats or Immigrants?

  1. two and a half centuries on I still think of my family as being ‘immigrants’ to Britain even though I am not entirely sure what we are ‘expats’ of, for our territory of origin has flitted between Germany and France, and various flexibly defined “Low Country’ states before coming to rest in the modern invention called ‘Belgium’ – a country which had no existence and therefore no meaning at the moment in the time when in ‘protest’ we protestants fled from the advancing Catholic Spanish.

  2. As far as I can see the two words have similar meaning. Within many sections of society (if not most) there is always the need to distinguish between “us” and “them” – the “in crowd” and “the outsiders”, but to always include which ever group “you” belong to as the better or more correct group for the circumstances.

    The Spanish have it right, we are all “extranjeros” (foreigners) – to them at least! At the end of the day, it all depends from where you are looking 🙂

  3. Isn’t the key here the words ‘permanently’? My parent emigrated to Australia and my brother and sister are immigrants now nationalised Australians. Those who call themselves expats are surely not committed to their new country of residence so have not become immigrants. Can’t see the problem. The idea that you are all foreigners to the Spanish seems to show the Spanish as being as thick as many in the UK – how far back do you want to go to find a true Spaniard; how many who consider themselves as such are actually decended from cultures outside of Spain I wonder.

  4. Steve’s comment sent me back to look at the two definitions again. He’s right, of course, that only the second definition includes the word “permanently”. But then l spotted another difference, which connects with something somebody wrote on the Eye on Spain expat forum. The difference in the perspective of who is using, or defining, the word.

    In the two Oxford Dictionary definitions, an immigrant is someone who COMES to live in a country. So the immigrant is being defined by a person already in that country, presumably a native of it. The definition of an expat is someone living outside THEIR country, so the perspective moves to that of the expat. In other words, from anyone’s OWN perspective, they would always be expats, seeing themselves as living away from their homeland. OTHER people, especially those coming into our own homeland, are thus immigrants. IM-migrants = those coming in, ie penetrating into our nation, a potentially aggressive act. An active word. EX-pats = people away from their fatherland, the word conjuring up sadness, isolation, people in need of pity or support. A passive word.

    To put it another way, and l did hint at this in the original post ….. WE are expats, THEY are immigrants. Our presence is a good thing, theirs is not. That’s the subtext, conscious or not, in how the words are often used.

    What do you think?

  5. You’re right Tamara, we were both on to the same thing! I personally think the ‘permanently’ tag distracts us from what we’re really talking about. It’s not so black and white (pardon the pun) today – for example, there’s so many Moroccans in France and Spain every year for harvest work. Many, if not most, go back to Morocco each year and repeat the process again and again. According to the definitions, they’re expats. But have you ever heard of a Moroccan strawberry picker referred to as an expat? Were ‘Turkish migrant workers’ in Germany ever called expats? No and no. At the end of the day, I see it as a racial thing, hence my discomfort with the term. Great blog.

  6. You absolutely hit the nail on the head! Well done for writing such a great article – most enjoyable to read.

    Having lived in different parts of the world and coming from a mixed nationality background not only have I have observed the word expat vs immigrant being used from a cultural point of view but also from an ethnic point of view – my mother is Chinese. I put it down to two things – attitude and arrogance. The word ‘expat’ in my experience is used mostly by westerners predominantly from western European countries (namely Brits) or North Americans who go to ‘foreign’ countries. They elevate their status so to speak by calling themselves ‘expats’ yet, as you rightfully pointed out, particularly in Britain, when someone comes to settle into their country they are labeled ‘immigrants?’ – go figure.

    It gets even worse as you head towards north America, they label their ‘foreigners’ of non western European origin words such as immigrants and illegal ALIENS would you believe? I would love to ask an indigenous native Indian of America what they call the so called ‘expats’ who came and took all their land away from them? Hmmmm all of a sudden the word ‘expat’ doesn’t seem to fit does it?

    When I grew up in the far east, I always thought expats were people who were sent by their companies to work in a foreign place? However coming to Spain has really opened my eyes as the ‘expats’ living here have come here as a lifestyle change as opposed to being sent here by their respective companies for one purpose – to work. All of a sudden my view of what an ‘expat’ is has expanded!

    Here is the bit that I can’t get my head around. In the far east, ‘expats’ generally have a privileged lifestyle, they earn uber loads of money and in general are respected by the locals and given almost an elevated status (well that was the case some 10,20 years ago). I know for I was raised in that privileged environment – yet, when I lived in the UK, I heard comments like “these immigrants take all our jobs, they don’t learn our language, they don’t integrate” etc., etc., On two occasions I was outright told “why don’t you go back to where you came from you don’t belong here” – much to my horror! How do you respond to something like that? My father is a prim and proper English gentleman, not in a 1000 years would I have expected a comment coming from his place of origin!

    In my humble opinion we are not immigrants nor are we expats. We are simply people who have relocated to another country and need to respect the laws and culture of the land. By using such labels we are in a sense separating ourselves from one another. Difference is a good thing however depending upon it’s connotation, it can also turn into a bad thing for ‘we fear that which we don’t know’. Let’s start by calling each other simply people or brothers or sisters – that has a much nicer feel to it than ‘expat’ or ‘immigrant’ doesn’t it?

    ps: I agree with Caitlyn – it is a racial thing and and as I pointed out in the beginning an arrogance thing.

    • Louise
      Your comment reads as if it could have been my life. I was born and brought up in the Far East until the age of 9 by an English father and a Malaysian mother. I too experienced what you did in my early days of arriving in England as a tanned “brown” newcomer. I enjoyed reading Tamara’s post followed by yours and other people’s comments.

      I now make a point of calling myself an immigrant in Spain as I can’t bear the thought of coming across as elitist in the connotation used by many fellow Brits here with the “We’re expats… Don’t need to learn the language etc” attitude.

  7. There are more than five million Portuguese expats/immigrants,and the number is increasing on a daily basis. Enjoying your blog.

  8. I have been inspired by Tamara. Thank you, you really are a great communicator. I want to live in Spain and Colmenar seems like a good place. My only concern is that it may be too steep for me but I can try. enjoy your blog. Anne

  9. I know this was written in 2010 but some 9 years later it is as relevant as ever. I always say that I am an immigrant as I moved to Spain from the UK back in 2004 just as I am the daughter of an immigrant as my dad moved from Ireland to England in 1957. I have found other Brits take umbrage when I say that we are all immigrants to Spain….as far as a lot of these people are concerned, we cannot possibly be immigrants as we’re the wrong colour 😡😡😡😡😡

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s