Expat and Migrant: Same but Different? 

Last week I wrote about ‘Freedom, Disguised as Boys’. While putting away the book I could not let go of what the author wrote about the benefits of being an expatriate in Afghanistan, whether working for an embassy, international agencies or non-governmental organisations.

‘No matter who they were in the outside world, or what social class they belonged to … foreigner instantly becomes a member of an upper, ruling class … this is a place for personal reinvention, where a new, improved persona can be crafted … Joining the expatriate … is an effective disguise, and one that brings power and access‘.

It also made me recall an interesting dissertation I once read about migrants from Sub-Saharan African origin in ‘transit’ in Istanbul, Turkey, showing that the idea of social status can be valid – not only for privileged expats – also for disadvantaged migrants.

While their aim is to reach the EU, many end up staying in Istanbul longer than they had foreseen. With time they gain social status among their ethnic migrant community, being the one knowing the ways around in the foreign country. To add, they also gain status in their country of origin, as the one who made it abroad. As long as they are able to send money home to support their families, many hide the fact that their situation may be very poor. The risk of losing the social capital that they have accumulated in the transit country, combined with the risky journey to Greece, leave many to ‘temporary’ stay in Turkey.

For many of my colleague and friends in Brussels, Belgium was their ticket out of countries tackling severe economic crisis, high unemployment and social deterioration. Some have had the opportunities and experiences of internships leading to work, others have passed the EU-concour (the institutions recruitment examination and selection), and many have applied for a job at non-governmental organisations, think tanks and international businesses operating here. In the end of the day we all live comfortable lives, some much more than they would if they had not moved.

Travelling to exciting holiday destinations may entail experiences of other cultures and ways of living, but somehow it is the idea of living and working abroad that people often find fascinating and admirable. As a matter of fact, one can live and work abroad without actually travelling much, and one can stay in the village one grew up in, travel and see the world. Perhaps it is the idea of expats courage to leave the past behind and reinvent themselves that thrills. At the same time, when migrants are forced to leave their past and seek safety in Europe, it evokes a different set of misconceptions (and prejudices), not always based on admiration but rather irrational fear of the ’unknown’ moving too close.

Migrants are often blamed for not integrating and contributing sufficiently to the culture and community of their hosting country. Expats on the other hand, are seemingly unaccountable for its lack of interest in the country they reside in. As an observation, in the European Commission alone works 33.000 people, none whom pay taxes in Belgium. Most migrants on the other hand, pay both taxes and yearly support 150 million people around the world by sending almost 100 billion euro in remittance.

In fact, some expats don’t speak the official language, they predominantly socialises with their fellow country women and men or other expats, don’t read the local papers, watch national tv or vote in local elections. While expats are exempted from the requirement to integrate, migrants are obliged. Many migrants plan and wish to move back when the situation in their country of origin has improved. Expats also consider themselves short-term residence, planning on going back home or moving on one day. In reality, many whom intended on staying a year or two, find themselves at the same place five and sometimes ten years later.

Perhaps Brussels have made me more European and less Swedish, or maybe it is the idea of reinvention that attracts me. Both ways, as an EU-citizen expat I am privileged and don’t face the challenges my migrant parents did as third country nationals. A difference worth putting in question.

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