The debate about how to define thousands of people moving to a different country is still ongoing in Europe. Expats, migrants, refugees… Many words are used to define people moving from their own country to another. But what is the difference between these terms? What makes an expat an expat and a migrant a migrant? Why do these words inspire two different images in our mind and where do these connotations come from? 

Let’s start with some definitions  

All these terms have an objective definition in the dictionary. Without taking into account the context for the moment, let’s take what the dictionary says as the basis of our analysis. 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an expat is ‘a person who lives outside their native country’. Quite a reductive and simple definition; yet correct. If we would stick with it, however, everyone living in a country that is not their own could be defined as an expat. But this is not the case. 

Wikipedia gives us a slightly more detailed definitionAn expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person residing in a country other than their native country. In common usage, the term often refers to professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers, who can be companies, universities, governments, or non-governmental organisations. Effectively migrant workers, they usually earn more than they would at home, and less than local employees. However, the term ‘expatriate’ is also used for retirees and others who have chosen to live outside their native country. Historically, it has also referred to exiles.’ 

This definition already contains some connotations. The term refers to people with a medium to high social status, or people with highly paid jobs. Professionals, skilled workers who move abroad independently or are sent by their employers, to pursue a career and have a better salary. It is not said, however, that they would earn more than locals.  

When referring to expats, we immediately think about wealthy, white western people working in a big city on the top floor of a super high skyscraper or something similar. We see a positive and relatable image, but much more lies underneath the surface, which we will explore later on. 

Let’s have a look at the word ‘migrant’ now. According to the United Nations, an international migrant is “someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. The term migrant refers to someone moving from one country to another legally.   

The two definitions are not that different on surface level, without any particular context. In both cases, we are talking about people moving to a foreign country to find better working and living conditions. So, what exactly makes expats so different from immigrants in the common everyday language? 

Generally, one of the differences between expats and migrants is time related. Expats are living in another country for an undetermined period, whereas migrants aim to permanently live and settle down in that country. However, this mere difference is not enough to construct a theory on the meaning of the two words. In fact, from what we can see by these definitions, the differences are not huge. In both cases, people are moving to a different country from their own to find better living conditions. The mere linguistic definition does not imply any diversity of the background, colour, origin or wealthiness of the people we are talking about. 

Where do these connotations come from? 

We all know, however, that in today’s common language, the two terms are normally used to define two different groups of people, which differ in wealth, skin colour, origin, and social status. In reality the term expat is reserved exclusively for western people going to work abroad (the Guardian). People from a European background who move abroad for a while, are still defined as expats, even if they are living in a country for more than ten years or their whole life. 

The everyday usage of the terms has established some controversy, as it is said to have racist connotations. For instance, a Brit working in France or Spain is defined as an expat, whereas a Turk or an Arab working in Denmark or Sweden is often defined as an immigrant (The Guardian). This Eurocentrism goes back to colonial times. 

Back when Europeans were colonising lands in Africa, India and America, people moving to settle down there and establish new businesses were defined as ‘expatriates’. Usually they were sent to the colonised countries with a beneficial package including free housing, free education for their children etc. These foreigners were automatically called expats by the local people and the government, to distinguish them from the rest of the population. The gap between the two was wide, some areas in the colonies were non-expats, and expatriates usually had more rights and governmental protection than the local population. 

So, with the years, the term found its way into our dictionaries and many colonial connotations were automatically associated with the term. According to Mawuna Remarque Koutoninexpat is a label only for “western white people going to live and work”, whereas the term “immigrant” is used for everyone else, supposedly considered part of “inferior” ethnicity. These connotations still remain today. 

According to studies published on linguisticpulse.comthe two words contain the following different connotations. 

Differently from ‘expat’, the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’ have a very negative connotation today. ‘Immigrant’ is now a term reserved for people of colour mostly coming from third world countries. Arabs are migrants, Africans are migrants, Asian and Eastern people are also migrants. However, Europeans and Americans are expats. This kind of differentiation contains a racist connotation as well. The way we use these terms includes the implicit assumption that white people are from another ethnicity which is superior in a way, compared to people coming from third or far away countries. 

Media outlets such as Al Jazeera decided to stop using the term ‘migrant’ when referring to the crisis in the Mediterranean as it has negative connotations. Alternatives are words such as ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’. 

Despite knowing that these differences stem from British colonial times, we tend to forget about the hidden meanings of these words. That is why paying attention to the words we choose is important. 

How the far-right helped to shape the migrant discourse in Europe 

Right-wing parties contributed greatly to the frame of the discourse about the migration crisis in the media. We all know that the wars in countries like Syria or Libya are pushing thousands of people to flee their countries on wobbly boats, risking their lives and that of their children for the small chance of reaching safety. People who move from their native country to another to flee from the war or extremely dangerous situation are defined refugees. According to the UN websiterefugees are “persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection”. Indeed, refugees are obliged to leave their home-country to survive, migrants instead choose to move abroad.  

The word migrant has been misused by the media, as when referring to anyone coming to Europe, being legal or illegal, that is the word that is used. Thus, media create the assumption that all migrants are illegal. Which is not true. Normally, the migrant worker is crossing the border legally, differently from the refugee, being constrained to escape from war from third world countries.  

The media strongly contributed to the popular idea of the “invasion” of people moving to Europe. We get the impression that the amount of people fleeing to Europe to escape war, in addition to the migrant workers, are so many that they are invading us. The main right-wing parties in Europe including the German AfD, UKIP, Lega in Italy, RN in France and the FPÖ in Austria are alerting people to the so-called invasion. They combine populist and nativist discourses, adopting slogans like “Italy for Italians” or “Britain first” and opposing any kind of policies that would allow countries to integrate the migrants. They were so successful that now mainstream parties are following their lead. 

Last year, the leader of Belgium’s Socialist party said that ‘migration in Europe must decrease‘ and the leader of Germany’s SPD said that Germany cannot accept all asylum seekers who come to the border. The same can be observed in Italy, Malta, Greece and France. In Denmark, the Social Democrats won the recent national elections, after they adopted a hard-stance on migration. 

Doing so, they reinforced the gap between the definitions of ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’. They reinforce the ‘us versus them’ narrative through the media and constantly repeat that they do not want migrants, that migrants both steal the jobs of the people who are living in one country and are too lazy to work and are just living off benefits at the same time. In this sense, they are almost trying to fuse the underlying connotations of expats and migrants together in one outside threat. 

Parties that engage in this practice are constructing a discourse of hate against migrants, convincing people that we are being invaded and that their homeland needs to be protected. Instead of improving international agreements on migration policies and European cooperation, they fan the flames of hate, which will not solve the so-called migration crisis, but only keep it alive for years to come. 

It’s only propaganda: data talks  

If we compare some data about the displacement of people looking for better living conditions, we can see that claims of right-wing forces are nothing but propaganda. There is no ‘invasion’ of migrants. Data comparing years of people’s movements to Europe show that the amount of migrants has decreased in the last years. In addition, data also demonstrates that the number of migrants and refugees coming to European countries are very small compared to the local population.  

According to Eurostat, cited by the European Commission, the number of non-European citizens living in Europe was 22.3 million on 1 January 2018. This represents only 4.4% of the entire EU population. The numbers are obviously too small to talk about an invasion 

From the image provided by Eurostat, the largest numbers of non-nationals living in the EU Member States on 1 January 2018 were found in Germany (9.7 million persons), the United Kingdom (6.3 million), Italy (5.1 million), France (4.7 million) and Spain (4.6 million).  


Despite the latest anti-migration policies, Brexit vote and the strong right-wing shifts in the UK, they together with Germany, are the most welcoming countries of Europe.  

Accurity’s EU migration map provides insights into the flux of migrants within Europe, dividing them between high-skilled medium-skilled and low-skilled. The UK takes in more highly skilled workers than any other EU country, while France has the largest percentage of low skilled workers. 

The map is accompanied by a chart which shows the percentage of highly skilled migrants compared to highly skilled nationals and non-EU migrants in each country. 

There are many maps and websites providing official data about migration and the flux of people moving within Europe. Despite this it is easy to get the feeling that the media is reporting the migration crisis with a considerable level of alarmism, but the real data is out there. The rhetoric of the invasion of Europe is only useful to right-wing populist who base their populist discourses on the fear of the other. But we should pay attention and get informed through official websites, in order not to fall into their way of talking. We should be able to develop our own critical thinking and make our own mind about such a complex and near topic. One does not need to vote for a populist party to strengthen it. It is enough to speak their language.

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