Language is a powerful tool, not least because of how subliminal it can be. The societal gaps that exist between peoples is reflected in our use of language, often so subconsciously that it can be difficult to notice the rifts we create with our words. For example, there are many terms to describe immigrants (and before we go any further, I want to emphasize that this article refers to certain colloquial uses of these words rather than their dictionary definitions). There is the term refugee, used to describe somebody escaping violence or persecution. There is economic migrant, used to describe those who have immigrated for work. And then there is expat, typically used to describe migrants from developed countries.
But in a world that is increasingly anti-immigration, perhaps the best term to use when speaking about somebody who happens to have been born in another country is simply the blanket-term “immigrant”. For all three of the other terms — refugee, migrant, and expat — are used to reflect the disparity between those who are considered superior immigrants and those who are not. This language not only harms those who might be considered lesser immigrants but also hurts those who fall into the less-vilified expat category.
Firstly, yes, the term “refugee” has a specific definition that makes those who fall into this category distinct from other groups of immigrants. The fact that there are different policies regarding refugees should leave the word out of this debate. However, “refugee” has often been used by the Left to describe any immigrant coming from a developing country. While this may be done with good intentions, in order to help as many people as possible, the political backlash to this terminology misuse has allowed the situation for true refugees to worsen due to increasing hostility towards them by the general public and governing parties.
Take the Mediterranean immigration crisis: liberal news sources and politicians tended to refer
to the situation as the “refugee” crisis. And obviously, many thousands who came across the sea were refugees. But a substantial number, potentially/probably the majority, were not. By claiming the crisis was one of refugees rather than immigrants, liberals allowed conservative politicians and news sources to (rightly) point out the fact that a large percentage of those coming were economic migrants. From the political scorecard standpoint, this allowed the Right to portray the Left as naive and ill-suited for leadership because it had allowed so many supposed migrants into Europe, no questions asked.
While liberals used the term “refugee” to subliminally convey sympathy for the immigrants, conservative governments and parties capitalized on our subconscious use of language in their own way. The Right wanted to call the crisis one of migrants rather than refugees in order to turn as many people away as possible. In the UK, as in nearly all EU countries, immigration has been drastically cut since the Conservatives took office in 2010. David Cameron and other politicians across Europe had promised fewer non-EU immigrants, and would face electoral backlash if they allowed those coming via the Mediterranean to come to their countries. By calling them migrants rather than refugees, governments were somewhat released from their responsibility of helping the refugees. As it can be quite difficult to prove a person’s right to refugee status, there is a high chance of an asylum-seeker’s claim being denied in the best of times. When a native population is hostile towards foreigners, governments have even less incentive to grant asylum-seekers their refugee status (though perhaps this is too jaded a take — after all, 80% of Syrian applications for asylum were accepted, with 52% of overall applications approved).
** If you are curious as to the legal requirements of EU countries in regards to refugees, please scroll to the bottom for a brief description.
For a concrete example of conservative rhetoric, between April 2015 and June 2016, UKIP only used the term “refugee” either when they were discussing the treatment of Christians in the Middle East, or when saying that other European countries (and not the UK) should be responsible for the refugees. But when the crisis was referenced in any way to the UK, the term migrant was always used. On multiple occasions, party leader Nigel Farage stated that the EU was ruled by a naive and liberal elite that insisted on calling migrants “refugees”. Considering the outcome of Farage’s Brexit and the strong role anti-immigration played in the decision, these statements clearly struck a chord with the British public.
In short, by calling everyone a refugee, the Left potentially caused hard to actual refugees because it allowed the Right to say that the immigrants coming were mostly migrants who were scamming the system in order to get a free pass into the EU. Unsurprisingly, this only furthered anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, which were already high after years of portraying migrants as people who come to steal jobs, steal welfare, and potentially even commit terrorist acts. In a poll taken by Ifop in October 2015, the majority of citizens in France, Italy, The Netherlands, the UK, and Denmark all said their countries already had too many immigrants and that they did not want refugees to come.
Given these high anti-immigrant numbers, this article does not argue that a simple language change would have significantly diminished the anti-refugee sentiments amongst the European population. What is does argue is that both liberals and conservatives used language to incite certain emotions amongst the electorate, with the Right using its chosen term more effectively. The Left needs to learn from this mistake and apply the term “refugee” only in cases when it is warranted. Had the Left used the term “immigrant”, the Right would not have been able to co-opt the narrative in the way that it did.
This language debate reaches far beyond the Mediterranean crisis. Again, migrant is the term, often used negatively, to describe those who have come for economic purposes. To British readers, how often did you hear the term “European migrant” during the lead-up to the Brexit vote? When you did, how often did you think of a Pole or Romanian rather than a German or Dane? I’m going to go ahead and assume your brain never pictured a Western European. Why? Because Germans, French, Swedes, etc, along with Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Americans are all supposedly expats. Except…they are migrants too.
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, being 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 six months since, I have lamented 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 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.
Language matters. My master’s degree was focused nearly entirely on immigration. In order to avoid any unconscious images swirling in my professors’ heads regarding who was being discussed, I almost always used the term “immigrant” (unless “refugee” was absolutely warranted). I do my best to never say the terms “migrant” or “expat”, and am careful about when I use “refugee”. Not that I do not slip up. Language is deeply engrained in our subconscious and it takes concentration and dedication to change how we talk. But I try my best, because immigrants need to stick together. We are all targets of these policies. All of our lives can be destroyed. The true fight regarding immigration is to ensure that immigrants of all types are treated like human beings. We do not need the additional battle of tackling condescending terminology ascribed to different groups of immigrants. And so it might seem like a small detail in the battle for immigrant rights, but we need to re-examine our usage of various terms. Please stop calling people expats. Please be careful when you use the term refugee. We are all immigrants.
** A basic breakdown of the complicated legal requirement of EU countries towards refugees is this: the Dublin Regulation states that the country a refugee initially arrives in is the country they must make their asylum claim in. However, the EU recognized that Italy and Greece — the two countries which received nearly 100% of all refugees during the crisis — could not handle the burden, especially considering that they were two of the countries worst affected by the recent economic crisis. In response, the majority of interior ministers from the EU member states voted to relocate a small percentage of the refugees to other countries. This was met with significant backlash, with nearly 60% of EU citizens against the agreement. It took nearly two years to complete the relocation process, and far fewer refugees than originally agreed upon were moved.