The semantics of migration
Isn’t it time we called everyone living outside their native country an ‘expat’?
Recently while researching stories on migration in Greece, I saw the following tweet which made me stop and think:
Immigration, a lexicon: You’re a ‘migrant’ when you’re very poor; ‘immigrant’ when you’re not so poor; and ‘expat’ when you’re rich.
Yes, the point the tweet makes is semantic. But semantics matter: the images evoked by the words used to refer to a group of people will, over time, help to define what we think about that group and how we act towards it. And in the case of people migrating to Greece who have in recent years been badly mishandled by the state, the use of neutral language in reporting by international media and NGOs is vital.
So, how true is the argument made in the tweet? Literally speaking, ‘migrants’ and ‘expats’ do indeed have the same meaning. But since practical usage can be something else entirely, let’s feed both terms into Google Images to see how they’re illustrated online in the context of Greece.
The differences are striking. Under ‘expat’: happy people raising a glass outside a Plaka taverna; the Parthenon at night; a tempting slice of Greek spinach pie; a panorama of Tilos island. Under ‘migrant’: deep scars on a man’s back from far-right attackers; people protesting behind fences as police look on; men sleeping huddled in a cramped room; a close-up of barbed wire.
Let’s try another quick-and-dirty cultural barometer: Google News for Greece, which aggregates recent popular news stories on the country. Under ‘expat’: an article wondering whether Britons living abroad are getting enough vitamin D, and a story on how to exploit Southern Europe’s ailing housing market. Under ‘migrant’, two headlines that need no explanation: “Racism, Exploitation, Violence: The Reality of Migrants’ Lives in Greece” and “Girl, 6, Drowns as Migrant Boat Sinks”.
In both cases, ‘expats’ in Greece are depicted as white; ‘migrants’ as darker-skinned. And the results confirm the tweet’s claim: expats appear to be wealthier, while migrants seem poorer.
Clearly, the definitions that these words have acquired are, at the very least, discriminatory. Who decides what ethnicity a person should have to be called a migrant? Who decides what socio-economic background, or legal status, qualifies someone for the ‘expat’ label?
But looking deeper, the constant use of the term ‘migrants’ in international reporting to describe the people suffering in Greece’s broken migration system today has, regrettably, allowed us to neatly separate our own lives from theirs and the challenges they face. Since whenever we act as these people are doing — leaving our countries to live abroad — there’s a different term for it.
If we took steps to use the same words for all people that migrate, whatever their socio-economic background or legal status or ethnicity, it would help us avoid bias and create empathy — less ‘them’, and more ‘us’. And empathy is the first step to bringing about change, which is badly needed in Greece.
So let’s start fixing this situation right now. Let’s scrap the ‘migrant’ label and call everyone living outside their native country an expat: from the bag-sellers in Monastiraki to the store-owners in Kypseli and the staff at the British Embassy in Kolonaki. And let’s see where it leads us.