When I moved from the US to the UK almost a decade ago, it never occurred to me to call myself anything other than an immigrant. Immigration is in my blood. My grandfather’s parents arrived in the US in the late 1800s; he was born in 1901. I was raised on stories of the journey from Germany to Ellis Island, stories of settling in, of the pride of finally obtaining citizenship, of the struggle to fit in. They were immigrants, and when I made my journey back to Europe, I too became an immigrant — a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.
It was only in Britain that I realized I could call myself something else. Technically, I am also an expatriate — a person living outside their native country.
What is the difference? In those two definitions, taken from a quick search on Google, the only difference is in the permanence of the move. And yet, expats often never return to their native countries. But sometimes, they do, and other times, they move to yet a different country. In that case, how are they any different from migrants? A migrant — a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions — is also a person living outside their native country.
After living a few years in England, I moved to France. Shortly, I will move back to England. This makes me an immigrant, an expat, and a migrant. Who, looking in on my life, decides which word to use? And why is that choice so important?
To begin to unravel this mess, I turned to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford briefing: Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their Consequences. While concerned solely with the issue of migration into and out of the UK, two of the key points stand out and have global implications:
Definitions of ‘migrant’ vary among different data sources, and between datasets and law.
The use of the term ‘migrant’ in public debate is extremely loose and often conflates issues of immigration, race/ethnicity, and asylum.
While this briefing did not come to any conclusion about what the definitions of these words should be, it did make clear how the confusion impacts data collection and governmental policy where immigration and migration is concerned. But what of the impact on the people at the heart of this confusion?
Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, writing for Silicon Africa and reposted on the Guardian, asks, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?”
Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.
In today’s world of fenced borders and immigration hysteria, that certainly holds true. I see it here in France, where the British always refer to themselves as expats, never immigrants. Perish the thought! In the public mind, the word immigrant denotes a certain type of traveler, most often brown, and most often of a dubious character. Never the kind of person you want as your neighbor, heaven forfend. These attitudes are fostered by headlines such as Public fury ahead of TV debate as 70 per cent of Britons says we MUST ban new migrants and Immigration is out of control and yet ask any of these editors to tell you to define the words immigrant or migrant, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are websites and papers. Go on, I dare you. While you watch them splutter, here is an actual reality check courtesy of the Guardian.
The lack of a common, universal definition for these words leads to miscommunication at best, and fear and exploitation at worst, and nowhere is this more clear in my part of the world than it is at Calais.
This article, from 2002, looks at the history of the Sangatte refugee camp. The people living in the camp were referred to and thought of as refugees — people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Ask any one of the people in the ‘Jungle’ why they left home. Their answers are war and persecution. Yet, somewhere in between the years 2002 and 2015, something changed. Now the people at Calais, those who have fled war-torn countries and human rights violations, are referred to as migrants. The compassion and assistance usually granted to refugees is being withheld. Calling these people migrants lumps them into a category that comes with a world of baggage and bigotry: they are coming for our benefits, they are coming to take our jobs, there are too many of them in Britain already. When these misconceptions are allowed to flourish, spending £7m on a fence almost seems reasonable.
This has to stop, and fortunately albeit far too slowly, some editors are coming to their senses. Al Jazeera will no longer refer to those people washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean as migrants:
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.
The UN says that the majority of people drowning trying to get to Europe are escaping war and persecution in their home countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, and they should be recognised as valid candidates for asylum.
And even if The Independent isn’t (yet) going to stop using the word, they are at least looking at the difference between migrants and refugees:
Reading a tabloid newspaper in 2015, you might wonder if Europe was again at risk of being conquered by the Mongol Empire. The continent is under “siege,” the papers report, facing an “invasion” from a “horde.” Parts of Europe have become like a “war zone,” they say, as “marauding” foreigners “swarm” the borders. The reality, of course, is that there is no army at the gates. The migrants that cause Europe such angst aren’t arriving in warships. Instead, most arrive in a human trafficker’s dinghy, if they arrive at all.
In an ideal world, we would refer to the people living in the ‘Jungle’ as people. We would see in them a reflection of ourselves, and instead of wasting money on fences, we would spend that money on real and lasting aid. Alas, it is far too late to stop the fences, but what we can do — what we need to do if there is any decency left in us — is refer to these people as what they are.
The people living in the ‘Jungle’ are refugees: someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.