Why I'm Not An Expat
My career is focused on immigration policies, specifically ensuring immigrant rights. I move abroad a lot, but I refuse to label myself as an expat. It is a term that shows privilege at best and is toxic at worst. I was and am an immigrant. Immigration policies that are so inhuman they are dubbed the "hostile environment" forced me to leave the UK, the country I consider home. Between my personal experience and my academic/professional studies, it has become clear that immigration is quite the misunderstood concept. My ultimate goal, other than somehow getting back home, is to educate the public on the various aspects of immigration. And step one is explaining why the term "expat" is harmful to that cause.
Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote that was then picked up by a Scottish podcast.
"In terms of policy impact, expats are no different than migrants. By using the term “expat”, we not only reinforce the idea that rich, white economic migrants are somehow different from poor migrants, but we also reinforce the idea that if we were to try and move abroad we are somehow different than immigrants from developing countries, and that we will not be impacted by the strict immigration policies Western countries have imposed.
For a personal example, I was an immigrant in the United Kingdom and was forced to leave the home I had made for myself because of strict-and-getting-stricter immigration laws. But while my life has been greatly (and negatively) impacted by the laws surrounding immigration, I can appreciate that I was a privileged immigrant, having been a native English-speaking white person. In the entire time I was there, I was on the receiving end of just one anti-immigrant rant (though it was an impressive one, I will give the man that).
In the weeks leading up to my return to the US, and in the months since, I have lamented my situation to countless people on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost always comes the same response: shock that I had to leave the UK and an assumption that all I need to do is apply for a new visa and I will be allowed to go back. This reaction is partially due to the fact that few people realize just how difficult it is to immigrate, but it also very much occurs because few think of expats as migrants. But they are and the law agrees. It is one aspect of the immigration situation where the privilege between “welcome” and “unwelcome” immigrants does not exist — policies are no different for those considered expats and those considered migrants. Nor should they be.
Another take on the term “expat” is reflected in what a white, British woman who currently lives in the US told me recently — she considers herself an expat because she plans to move back to the UK at some point. But here’s the thing: many immigrants of all types expect to return to their origin country eventually. Refugees often want to return when it is safe, migrants may find that they miss their family too much, students tend to want to go home at the end of their studies, etc. A Pakistani friend of mine, for example, has lived in London for two years and plans on returning to Karachi in another two. Now, raise your hand if you think anybody would call her an expat.
Westerners who call themselves expats merely show their privilege when doing so. My Pakistani friend laughed out loud when I asked her if she believed that society considered her one. This is not to use anecdotes as evidence, but merely to hone in the point that short-term residency is not the main criteria for the colloquial usage of “expat”.
In order for immigrants of any type to be treated more humanely, citizens of the rich, white countries need to realize that they would be migrants if they ever tried to move abroad. I have lost track of the number of times I have talked with Americans about my situation, incited their sympathies and outrage, only to have them turn around and discuss moving to Canada in order to escape Trump. You guys. You can’t move to Canada. They have immigration policies! What were we just talking about?? Or recently, The Times ran an article that said up to a quarter of working-age Brits would move abroad after Brexit in order to find work. This article was widely shared amongst the Remain crowd on Twitter and Facebook. But after Brexit, the UK will probably lose the EU’s freedom of movement. So please, explain how this supposed 25% will get past the strict immigration policies that nearly all Western countries, including the UK, have enacted in recent years. The short answer is: they won’t because they can’t."
If you are interested in the rest of the article, please click the link. If you're not, that's ok. But please think about what I have said if you haven't before. Language matters.