A+ Crossing Borders

When is a migrant not a migrant?

4 Mins read

By Simon Hinde


They come in their tens of thousands, crossing a continent in search of a better life.

Over time, this influx of migrants has grown into a community of officially 300,000 but estimated by some to be as high as 800,000, mostly concentrated in a few areas, which over time change out of all recognition.

They have their own shops, restaurants, bars where they gather to speak their own language and be with their own kind.

While some immerse themselves in the local culture and language, one survey suggested that a third of them never or rarely met people from the host community and 60 per cent could not speak the language well, even after living here for years.

The children of the migrants struggle in schools, a problem that has become so severe that the government has been forced to employ so-called ‘school mediators’ to help the arrivals adapt.

Special language classes are laid on for the children but the problems remain. Teachers complain that the new arrivals, and their families, show little interest in learning the host language or accommodating themselves to the country’s customs. Many say that they would like to return to their home country but are unable to, for economic reasons.


In some parts of the country, the outsiders outnumber the native population, leading to pressure on public services. Doctors complain that the influx of foreign residents is putting an intolerable strain on the country’s health service.

This is exacerbated by the language problems and some doctors are now refusing to offer treatment without an interpreter present – which brings further costs and delay.

Medical staff say it is not uncommon to see patients who have lived in the country for twenty years, are unable to speak the language and become enraged when doctors are unable to address them in their native tongue.

Newspapers run angry articles about so-called ‘health tourists’ and the burden they place on the country’s hospitals.

While the majority of the migrants are peaceful and law-abiding, there has long been concern about a number of dangerous criminals who have settled in the country, fugitives from justice in their native land.

These include murderers, drug dealers, rapists, paedophiles and other sex offenders. The local police regularly tour migrant areas in a specially adapted van with a digital screen attached to the back displaying images of wanted criminals.

The police say that migrants are more than twice as likely than local people to be involved in crime.

[pullquote align=”right”]‘Expat’ is used almost reflexively and set in contrast to ‘immigrant’ and ‘immigration’. But what actually is the difference?[/pullquote]


These, then, are the Brits in Spain, the UK’s most significant contribution to international migration.

And yet, even though they are one of the largest and least well integrated communities in Europe, they defiantly and sometimes angrily refuse to be categorised as immigrants.

They are, they insist, ‘expats’ – a designation that is largely adopted by the British media when writing about them.

Here, for example, is the Daily Telegraph in April: “Brits insist UK immigrants speak English – so why don’t expats in Spain learn Spanish?” Or The Independent: “Beware of immigration, say the expats enjoying sunny Spain”.

‘Expat’ is used almost reflexively and set in contrast to ‘immigrant’ and ‘immigration’. But what actually is the difference?

Expat (short for the rarely used ‘expatriate’) tends to be defined in dictionaries as a person who lives outside the country of their birth (the word is derived from the Latin ex patria – outside the native land). A migrant tends to be defined as ‘a person who moves from one country to another’.

Either of these definitions fit a Briton living in Spain or, say, a Romanian living in the UK. Yet the Brit will invariably be described as an ‘expat’, while the Romanian will be a ‘migrant’.


I’ve seen it argued that an expat is a person who lives in a foreign country temporarily, for work reasons, perhaps because they’ve been transferred there by their company.

That doesn’t seem right, though: many of the expat Brits in Spain say they have no intention of ever coming back to the UK; while many migrants to Britain stay only for a few years’ work.

Other people argue that the distinction is purely racist. ’Expat’ is a term exclusively reserved for western white people going to work abroad: people of other races are immigrants.

But this doesn’t seem quite right either. It’s not that hard to find examples of white European groups being labeled as immigrants – Irish and Italian people who went to the USA, for example.

[pullquote align=”right”]There’s a whole stew of assumptions in there about class, economic status and race which can only lead to different expectations of the two groups.[/pullquote]


Despite this, you instinctively feel that there is a sense of hierarchy encoded in the two words, that it’s better in some way to be an expat, than it is to be an immigrant.

The website Linguistic Pulse did an analysis of the adjectives that most commonly occurred close to each of the words across the internet.

Words widely associated with ‘expat’ included fellow, popular, expensive, medical, useful, international, young, western, American, British, French.

The adjectives found with ‘immigrant’ included low-skill and undocumented (the two most common terms), illegal, foreign-born, unauthorized, Mexican, Haitian, Bangladeshi.

There’s a whole stew of assumptions in there about class, economic status and race which can only lead to different expectations of the two groups.

The expats are seen as (or see themselves as) some form of elite, who will retain strong links with their home countries, are likely to return at some point so do not need to integrate, even up to the point of not learning the language.


Immigrants, on the other hand, are seen as an underclass, whose duty it is to abandon their ties to their country of birth and to assimilate into the host culture. There is probably an assumption too that they will never return home.

There’s a reason why footballers like Sergio Aguero, David de Gea, Eden Hazard or player of the season Riyad Mahrez are never described as immigrants, nor French business leaders and Russian oligarchs who come to live in London, nor the likes of Mark Carney, the Canadian who now runs the Bank of England.

The formal dictionary definition of ‘immigrant’ fits them well enough, but the reality of what they do and who they are doesn’t match our understanding of the word.

It’s a double standard, of course, and a damaging one. If the words we associate (subconsciously or otherwise) with immigrants are so negative, is it any wonder that the debate about migration, refugees and asylum seekers is so politically charged?



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