Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Immigrant or Expatriate?

My parents came to visit last weekend, for Easter. We had a lovely time, and, as we often do, we put the world to right on many subjects...

At one point though, my mother asked: “what would you say is the difference between an immigrant and an expatriate?”

This was not the opening line of some inappropriate joke, but a genuine question. And a good one, too. And I have to admit that I was somewhat flummoxed by it: I had never thought about the difference and I wasn't too sure what it was.

Out came the dictionary:

   im·mi·grant n
a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.
ex·pa·tri·ate n
a person who lives in a foreign country.

Mmmmm... Not a lot of difference, is there?

Maybe the former hints to a more permanent intention than the latter. However, I certainly know people who would never consider themselves immigrants, yet have no intention of ever leaving their host country (and by the way often don't even speak the local language despite having lived there many years).

So maybe the difference is more a matter of connotation. Somehow being an expatriate is cool and good (think “expat lifestyle”), whereas being an immigrant is not so good (think “illegal immigrant”). Mixed into all this is a whole load of preconceptions and prejudices, as well a misplaced post-colonial superiority complex.

Of course, I should declare as vested interest: I am an serial immigrant. My father is French, my mother English, I have lived in France, the UK, Germany, and The Netherlands, and now I spend a lot of my time in Finland. I feel more or less at home wherever I live; I also feel a foreigner wherever I am... So who am I to talk?

As for the Finnish connection in all this...

In Finland, immigration has raced to the top of the political agenda following the recent electoral success of the radical nationalist Perussuomalaiset party (True Finns as they like to be known in English, but quite literally Basic Finns - sic). This concern about immigration comes despite the fact that Finland has a tiny foreigner community (2.9% of the overall population in 2008).

It will be interesting to see how the Basic Finns propose to go about [*adopts a sarcastic tone*] weeding out those nasty immigrants from those more desirable expatriates.


  1. It's an excellent question that applies to my situation exactly. I came here to stay, so I would consider myself an immigrant and would not be ashamed of it. Only in the minds of my Finnish acquaintances, the difference is the original location: an expatriate comes from Europe, North America and possibly Australia ; an immigrant comes from anywhere else.

    My own definition would be that an immigrant ran out of a country while an expatriate came to a country. The immigrant had very good reasons to leave, the expatriate had very good reasons to come. Which implies that the immigrant would do whatever it takes not to be kicked out of Finland while an expatriate still has the possibility, if necessary, to go back to his/her home country. But that would imply that immigrants have a better right to be welcomed and taken care of, since they are less likely to take what they can get and then leave. But it's the other way around in national's minds: an immigrant came to profit while an expatriate came to bring value.

  2. Wonderful to hear that there are people who come to Finland in order to bring value to the poor Finns, whatever the poor expats might have to suffer to bring their wonderful gifts! Glory Hallelujah to all them from the ignorant Finns!!!