Expats vs. Migrants: Is There Any Difference?

Living abroad is a dream for many people

Have you ever thought about living abroad? Have you ever dropped everything, packed your stuff, and just left? Was it a necessity or the desire to experience an unconventional life

During my seven years abroad, I have long wondered what moving in a foreign country means. What being a foreigner means. Why some of them are called “expats” and others are merely “migrants”? What does mark the difference between the two? Is there any difference at all?

Foreignness labels 

Human mobility is nothing new. Human beings were born nomads and have continuously relocated throughout continents and eras. In the last century, faster connections and cheaper international travel have been great facilitators in building people’s “citizen-of-the-world identity”, spurring a new wave of international migration. 

This in turn created a more interconnected and multicultural world where everyone can enjoy their unique lifestyle and feel part of something larger than individual nations. All good, except that things are always more complex if you dare looking beneath the surface. 

Today, words such as “migration” and “migrants” fill our news feed and heat up our political debates. We learn that environmental disasters, wars, and a broader political instability force millions of people to leave their lands and flee hunger and persecution each year.

As a consequence, richer and peaceful countries are heavily impacted. Traditional social and economic structures are gradually changing or consciously being reformed to accommodate or set boundaries to incoming cultures and customs. Meanwhile, words such as ethnic and fusion are becoming part of our jargon when it comes to food and fashion preferences (did someone say “sushi”?).

At the same time, a growing number of people experience “expat life”, that is voluntarily moving abroad to study, work, retire, or simply enjoy an unconventional life. Others – the wildest – opt for a “digital nomad” label: gig-economy remote-working people who can live on the road only with their laptop and a fast internet connection. 

But why these groups – whose wandering attitude leads to the same globalized world – are treated so differently? Are they inherently apart or is it rather a matter of perception? 

Labels do not define who we are

Blurring the lines

Migration is a scary word. This is because its implications are not yet fully understood and often perceived as troublesome. On the contrary, “expatriation” has a more positive interpretation. It showcases an enriching experience that brings value to people and the world at large.

Besides, expats are considered well-educated, high-skilled individuals who go overseas to follow their dreams. Migrants are seen as desperate and poor people instead, moving abroad to chase a “better life”.

No doubt backgrounds are diverse, needs different, and the cost-benefit for host countries hugely unbalanced. Yet, the differences are blurring while our beliefs remain unchanged. More and more migrants are well-educated, high-skilled and willing to make an impact. 

Excluding extreme cases such as wars and conflicts (we all know what these people are escaping from, don’t we?), carrying great potential is the exact reason why people leave their countries. Who does want to remain in a place deprived of opportunities? Who does long for a bleak future? Who does want a life full of sacrifices and regrets?

Everyone has dreams and pursues the same thing: happiness. Times are hard and snap solutions don’t exist. We just need to give people some credit.

It’s a visa world

Passports and stamps can create barriers to movement

I am a European citizen and I am fully aware that living in a border-free world is a privilege. Europeans are entitled to travel without restrictions and relocate anywhere across the EU. No one checks me in if I spend a weekend in Disneyland Paris or if I fly to Vienna overnight to silence my sorrows in a layered Sachertorte (what a dream!). No one can remove me if I don’t “get my papers” in the EU country where I wish to live. Same for other regions around the world such as the US.

In addition, my Italian passport ranks 5 in the list of world’s most powerful passports. It allows me to enter 168 countries worldwide with no or very loose visa requirements. (No doubt it would take some additional paper for a long-term stay, but still.) Cross-regional relocation is indeed more cumbersome, but not impossible.

However, the majority of the world’s population is (most or entirely) excluded from this privilege due to their legal status. They are not born in the “right place”, they do not have the “right citizenship”, they do not hold the “right passport”.

I often wonder what it means being forced to remain in a place against your will. I freeze thinking of people who are deported from the country they would rather die to stay – perhaps after bearing an unspeakable journey. I wonder what it means being chooseless

My life would look way different if I weren’t able to decide where and how to live. This blog post might not even been written. I would still be safe in my peaceful country with my family and friends though. Nonetheless, I would consider it a “bounded life”, and definitely not my first choice. This is why I fear barriers, closed borders, and walls. Not a political commentary, just a personal feeling.

I, human

Although backgrounds and experiences may vary, they do not change the way people think or feel when moving abroad. Perceptions do not depend on labels. Being away from family and friends, walking through unfamiliar territories, changing habits, learning new languages and customs – be it a planned choice or a suffered necessity – creates a sense of loss and loneliness irrespective of status, wealth, and desires. 

We are all migrants, expats, re-settlers, or refugees in that we are humans. We fight the same fears, suffer the same grief, and face the same difficulties when arriving in a new place. That is why relocation (of any kind) should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity to learn from “the others” – whoever they are, drawing from our shared emotional background.

We are all humans

Published by Nadia Musumeci

Copywriter. Millennial. Expat. And a lot of questions.

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