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If you had to move to another country, would you call yourself an expat or an immigrant?

With the topic of migration making more prominent (and often shocking) headlines in recent years, terms like migrant, immigrant, emigrant and expat have become part of our everyday conversation.

Dictionaries posit definitions that often do not match the meaning that we, as individuals, have internalised.

There are numerous stereotypes which are attributed to labels which are either attached to us, or that we choose to adopt, and with differences which many are unaware of, understanding the aforementioned terms can help to break down these typecasts.

So, what is the difference between an expat, an immigrant, an emigrant and a migrant?

Is there a term that has more of a positive connotation then others and if yes, why?

The Difference between an Expatriate (Expat) and an Immigrant

While an expatriate is defined as an individual who lives outside their native country, an immigrant is an individual who lives permanently in a foreign country. One of the main differences between an expatriate and an immigrant is that immigrants intend to stay in their new country indefinitely, whereas the certainty of expats remaining in one country is more unclear. Generally, expats are deemed to stay in their host country for a limited amount of time.

Historically, expatriates, colloquially called expats, were referred to as exiles. To be in exile is to be away from your homeland, but the term has also been used with a bad connotation to indicate people that were refused permission to return to their own country and being threatened with imprisonment or death upon return. Famous examples of exiles were; Napoleon I, exiled from France to Elba Island in Italy and later, St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean; Victor Hugo exiled from France to the Channel Island;  Albert Einstein self-exiled from Germany to the United States and lastly, Sigmund Freud self-exiled from Austria to United Kingdom.

In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and the article 9 states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”.

The difference between an Immigrant, a Migrant and an Emigrant

While migrant is the term used to describe someone moving between different countries to find work or better living conditions, immigrant refers to people relocating to a new country to live on a permanent basis. Emigrant, instead, is a person who leaves their own country in order to settle permanently in another one.

To put this into perspective, individuals from Spain, for example, who relocate to live in the United Kingdom on a permanent basis, are an emigrant from Spain, and an immigrant in the United Kingdom.

Common misconceptions of the term ‘Immigrant’

Let’s think about the word “Immigrant” and let’s go back to our initial question: What is the meaning that we, as individual and member of a society, have internalised? Does it have a positive or a negative connotation? If so, why?

The truth is that nowadays the word ‘immigrant’ gets automatically linked with ‘illegal’. This is an unfortunate connotation that fails to take the millions of immigrants that are living in a new country legally into consideration. Illegal immigration is a growing concern globally and public concerns about immigration have been steadily increasing. This sense of unease and concern has been fuelled due to the socio-political impact of various world events, and has manifested in a rise of anti-migrant sentiment in the media and in political debate.

Behind the dictionary definition – The negative connotation of the word “Immigrant”

With media coverage and portraying images of people struggling over barbed wire in Calais, storming trucks and transportation in an attempt to get to the next country, or vulnerable families crossing the Mediterranean aboard unsafe boats becoming the normality, the media has some responsibility for the negative connotation of the word ‘immigrant’. Although it is not their fault, it is their responsibility to accurately and without bias, informs us of what is actually happening.  Access to images and film related to migration has increased, and is consistently broadcast across TV, newspapers and social media.  As a result of the avalanche of information, a debate has occurred regarding the exact wording which should be used to describe the situation of people moving from one country to another. Once again, the media need to be accountable for incorrectly interchanging words such as human ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’, which although may appear similar are in fact very different.

Returning to the first question, Is there a term that has more of a positive connotation then others and if yes, why? The UN uses the terms regular and irregular migration.  If we must use labels to describe families and individuals, terms such as irregular migration, which typically refers to people who are crossing borders to enter a country without legal permission, should be used in order to clearly illustrate a person’s rights (or lack of) in the country in which they reside. Why? These terms do not demonize or criminalise people, who are often moving in search of a better life – and who doesn’t want to do that?

Creating a positive perception of Migrants

What more can we be doing to encourage the acknowledgement that we are in fact more similar than we might think and that certain labels and their associated connotations are creating deep, damaging divisions amongst society? As Jo Cox so poignantly stated, ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’.

While it appears some mainstream media are busy portraying migration as a problem, there are campaigns, organisations and associations that are working to change this.

I am a migrant  is the UN Migration Agency’s platform to promote diversity and inclusion of migrants in society. Every migrant can tell their story and contribute to change the perception of migrants.

On the back of Brexit The Advertising Association  created a campaign called “A Great Advert for Britain” with the aim to show that Britain’s advertising industry leads the world thanks to the creativity and professionalism of many immigrants.

The impact of migration on the economy

Despite ongoing discussions over the stereotypical beliefs that some associate with migration, such as taking jobsand shrinking wages, migrants play a crucial role in the global economy. Without them, countries across the globe would struggle to develop, innovate and grow.

Santa Fe Relocation and the UN Migration Agency, IOM, UK country office are working together to explore an exciting partnership to redefine the perception of migrants and support local integration of migrants. IOM is committed to the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society and states that “partnerships with organisations such as Santa Fe Relocation are vital in contributing to addressing today’s humanitarian and development challenges, and is essential to reaching the objectives set by the Sustainable Development Goals.”

For more information and to find out how we can help, please contact a member of our expert team today.

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