What is the difference between an immigrant, an expatriate and a refugee?

Why are some people called immigrants, others refugees and others expats? Is there a difference or can they be used interchangeably? Let's find out!

My People,

Long time, no see! I have been working very hard and living simply as I like to do and I am happy to be sharing a letter with you this week. If you’ve been following our story since last year, you know that we have been working on the Fill in the Black app and this will be ready soon. You also know that we are giving a 10% discount and FREE SHIPPING across our game store when you use the code MYPEOPLE for Black History Month. The hilarious guessing game set is the perfect gift to give someone this month. I am also giving away a few money management journals from Money Africa to you. If you’ve never won something before on here, now’s your turn. Just send me a reply to this email telling me about your experience with Fill in the Black game and I’ll send the journals to the first few respondents in Lagos.

Now, let’s talk about immigrants!

Have you ever wondered why some people are called immigrants, some are called refugees and others are called expatriates? Can these terms be used interchangeably or are there political, economic or historical differences? Is there a real difference between these terms or is it just an artificial divide? Well, let’s find out!

An immigrant is a person who moves to another country permanently or for a long term. When applying for visas, this definition becomes clear because embassies typically regard long-term travelers as immigrants (Green Card, etc) and short term travelers as tourists (Students, Business, Tourists, etc).

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their home country because of oppression, war, hunger or another political or natural disaster. This means that all refugees are immigrants but not all immigrants are refugees. Interestingly, when people think of refugees, they first think of Africans or Middle Easterners fleeing war into Southern Europe. This is merely a perception since Turkey has the largest number of refugees in the world (3.6 million). Also, Lebanon has the highest percentage of refugees (about 21.8% of the population or 6 million people are refugees from Syria). The next four countries hosting the largest number of refugees as a percentage of their population are Jordan, Turkey, Liberia and Uganda. This table from the Norwegian Refugee Council shows the top 10 refugee-receiving countries by percentage:

In the year 2020, more than 67% of refugees came from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar, due to war and political instability. One more thing about refugees…if a person is displaced from their home but they flee to another part of their country, they are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) instead of refugees. You have to cross an international border to be called a refugee.

An expatriate is a person who is living outside their home country either as an independent professional or as sent by a company in their home country. In today’s language, this is often used to refer to people who have not settled permanently in the new country and who receive special benefits, tax adjustments, allowances and ‘foreign worker’ status by their companies.

Even though these are the official definitions by the dictionary and the United Nations, it is also common for people to be called either immigrant or expatriate, depending on the country of their birth. Often times, migrants from wealthier countries who are coming to work in another country are called expats whereas those from poorer countries are referred to as immigrants, no matter how temporary or permanent their stay is in the new country. It seems like the expat-migrant divide has been fueled by the media and subsequently by our socio-cultural orientation. In fact, this use of language is so common that even among two poor countries, the person moving from the country that is perceived to be richer, is likely to be called an expat and the reverse would be called a migrant.

For example, when a Nigerian moves to London or Toronto, they will typically be referred to as a migrant. On the other hand, a Canadian or Brit who moves to Lagos or Kuala Lumpur would be called an expat, whether they are moving on behalf of their company or as freelance English teachers on an ‘eat-pray-love’ journey. A Kenyan moving to DRC may also be called an expat, but it unlikely that a migrant from DRC in South Africa would be called an expat. Despite the typical uses of these terms, many people have either reclaimed the technical definitions of the words or done away with them altogether.

So does it matter to you? Do you unconsciously call some people expats and other immigrants, or do you have clear definitions in your mind? Did you know that there were technical differences? Leave a comment or send me an email.

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