Published on People Move

The power of words: Would you want to be an expat or an immigrant?

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In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18

Today is International Migrants Day. Who comes to your mind when you read this? Would you think of  a football player playing for a club in another country? Or of a German working at the European Commission in Brussels?  Even though they live outside their country of birth and are thus migrants per definition, we do not think of them as migrants. Just like a British pensioner living in Spain or a Swiss working for a company in the US, these people are often rather referred to as ‘expats.’ 
The definition of the word expat is blurred. While just like the term migrant it should designate everyone living outside their country of origin, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography in practice the term is generally applied to highly skilled professionals or artists from affluent countries, often sent by companies abroad, rather than all immigrants in general. Wikipedia also includes pensioners. But in a Western context it comes with more underlying assumptions: It makes it sound like they move out of choice and curiosity and not out of necessity, with certain autonomy. They seem to be superior to migrants, privileged. You do not expect them to learn the local language and to integrate into society even though they often end up staying longer than some ‘migrants.’

Words trigger these kinds of associations, unconsciously. Would my perception change if I talked about migrants in my country as expats and of myself as migrant when I am living outside of my country of birth? Would this help convey that migration can also be an enriching experience for a low-skilled person from the Global South?

More examples for the power of words: Does mobility sound better than migration? Would I favor to increase intra-regional mobility but not intra-regional migration? And would you rather say: I commute for work or I am an internal migrant? Wording is also political. Shall we talk about illegal migrants or undocumented/irregular migrants?

When it comes to migration we all have prejudices in our heads. And the words we use are strong in shaping images. This makes it all the more important that policy makers, media and all of us reflect on the words we use. 


Kirsten Schuettler

Senior Program Officer, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, World Bank

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