Language Matters - April 1, 2017 - 5 min

Migrant, Refugee, Immigrant and Expatriate: What is the difference?

The English lexicon for people living outside their country of origin has been shaped by the historical forces of colonialism, globalization, immigration and war. The terms migrant, refugee, immigrant and expatriate are rooted in the different political and socio-economic realities of the migrating groups and in the dynamics between the receiving countries (this article will focus on the US and the UK) and the sending nations. The following sections will describe the historical context of these terms and whom they typically refer to.

Refugee and Migrant

Today refugee is a legal term, defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as “a person 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”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, refugee was borrowed from French in the 17th century to refer to Protestants fleeing France, especially the Huguenots in Britain and colonial America after the 1685 Edict of Nantes. In the 20th century, the League of Nations High Commission for Refugees (1921) was formed to address the conditions of the over 1 million Russians who had fled after the Bolshevik revolution (many fitting the traditional definition of émigrés—see below), and later to the over 1 million Armenians fleeing Asia Minor during the chaotic breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The 1951 Refugee Commission’s definition of refugee was coined amid post-World War II population exchanges, widespread statelessness and the aftermath of the Holocaust. A consensus grew that states should treat people fleeing persecution differently from those simply choosing to migrate.

This legal framework continues today, most recently applied prominently to Syrians in Europe since the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Media outlets variously refer to the Syrian influx as a migrant crisis or refugee crisis according to how they choose to portray it. The choice of terms is crucial, because the receiving countries are legally obligated to assist “refugees”, according to the 1951 definition, while they are under increasing political pressure to prevent the arrival of “economic migrants”. In practice, it is often hard to draw a strict line between the categories—persecuted people often face economic ruin, and defining “forced to leave” is fraught with difficulty. The most conservative and legalistic usage would be to limit the term refugee to migrants who have successfully claimed asylum, and asylum seeker to those who are in the process. Asylum seeker, commonly used as a synonym of refugee (claimant) in the UK, is less common in North America. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the top five collocations with refugee in 2015 were specific nationality words—Syrian, Palestinian, Afghan, Somali and Sudanese—while those of migrant included illegal, African, EU, undocumented and irregular. The presence of EU migrants became a major political issue in the UK in the run-up to the Brexit campaign.

In the United States, migrant and migrant worker tend to refer to temporary agricultural workers in the US, many of whom are from Mexico and whose presence is governed by legal agreements distinct from standard US immigration pathways.

Immigrant and Expatriate

Expatriate (or expat for short) is loaded with elite connotations. Some commentators have criticized the use of expat, seeing it as a biased term for migrants from “first world” or English-speaking countries, while “immigrants” refers to everyone from poorer developing countries. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the top five collocations with expat are specific nationalities—British, American, Indian, Canadian and Australian—while the top five collocations with immigrant are illegal, undocumented, Mexican, legal and Chinese. The 21st-century political discourse has hardened against job-seeking “immigrants” in the US and a number of European countries, while “expats” rarely bear the brunt of this sentiment. Other English speakers argue that the two terms reflect different intentions: immigrant refers to someone who wants to join the new country permanently as a resident or citizen, while expatriate refers to someone who has not decided how long they intend to remain. The classic “expat” is an employee transferred by his or her company to work in a branch or project in another country as a career move. Nevertheless, surveys of English-speaking expatriates reveal an economically diverse cross-section, with many moving abroad to follow a partner or for work or education—quite like typical “immigrant” scenarios. Americans often apply the term immigrants to all non-US-born people who intend to stay in the US long-term or permanently, and even specialized professionals on temporary visas tend to be lumped in with this category. In contrast, Americans and British people abroad often refer to themselves as expatriates even if they intend to stay forever. The fact that in some countries with a significant Anglophone “expatriate” community, such as the Persian Gulf states, Hong Kong and Singapore, few foreign workers are able to pursue permanent residence and citizenship may further explain the preference for expatriate over immigrant in these contexts; virtually all foreign-born working-class people in these countries are referred to either as “expatriate workers” or as “guest workers” (the latter only for non-qualified jobs).

Anglosphere migrants frequently have formed long-term “expatriate” enclaves in a number of countries, where they have been slow to integrate into the local language and culture. For instance, Mexico and Spain have large communities of American and British expat retirees, many of whom would not like to refer to themselves as “immigrants”, even if they never intend to return to the US and the UK, likely due to the term’s unprestigious connotations.

One can contrast this situation with the centuries-long tradition of permanent middle-class British immigration to the US, Canada and Latin America. The 19th century saw waves of British immigration to South America, leading to many prominent Chileans, for example, having English ancestry. Welsh Argentine and Scottish Argentine communities are also well-established and have often adopted Spanish as their main language. Speaking of these populations as “British immigrants” is quite natural, in comparison with the English-speaking “expat” communities in the same or similar countries.

The terminology for Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders abroad is even harder to pin down. One finds frequent references to Canadian immigrants in a US context. Elsewhere, Commonwealth migrants tend to frequently be referred to as “expats”—expat Kiwis in the UK, Australian expats, South African expats, and so forth. Some of these communities are quite well established, particularly in the UK.

In comparison with the British and Commonwealth expats, the American expatriates have historically had a tenser, more politically charged relationship with their country of origin. The US tends not to view itself as a country of emigration. However, there have been sporadic waves of Americans departing for other countries, often following particular political events in the US (see émigrés below). African Americans poured into Canada in the run-up to the US Civil War, while small waves of Confederates immigrated to Central and South America during the Reconstruction Era. There has been a stream of ordinary middle-class American immigration to Canada in the 20th and 21st centuries, although the combinations such as American expats and US expats appear to still outrank American/US immigrants in the Canadian context. The other large American emigrant population is the previously mentioned “expat” (often retiree) community in Mexico.

Expatriation is also a US legal term for renunciation of citizenship. A common eggcorn for expatriate is ex-patriot (often reduced to ex-pat), which may reflect the political tensions between the emigrant groups and the homelanders, a term some Americans abroad use to refer to US-resident Americans.

In summary, current usage of these terms reflects the following categorization:

  • A refugee is someone forced to flee their country of origin, especially because they were being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, membership of a particular social group, etc.

  • A migrant is any person living outside of their country of origin, but especially a non-skilled worker moving for economic reasons. This word frequently has a negative connotation.

  • An immigrant is someone (of any origin) pursuing long-term residence or citizenship in another country.

  • An expatriate is someone staying abroad temporarily or of an undetermined period, especially a white-collar professional or someone from a wealthy or English-speaking country. This term is also commonly used for long-term guest workers in Asian countries that naturalize few foreign citizens.

Emigrant and Émigré

Emigrant refers to someone who has migrated out of a country—the same as migrant, but from the perspective of the sending country. Émigré historically connotes a reactionary wealthy person fleeing a revolution and has its roots in the French and Russian revolutions. In the 20th century it was applied to some Americans who had chosen politically motivated exile, for instance African Americans fleeing segregation and racism such as Josephine Baker and Nina Simone, and left-wing politically active American artists who moved abroad during the McCarthy era. In these contexts, one sometimes encounters combination like US émigrés, American émigré artists, etc. A number of such people pursued citizenship in their new countries but tended to be tied to cosmopolitan expatriate communities, hence the blur between émigré and expatriate.

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