I’ve had three different social media adverts targeted to me as an “ex pat” today and I’m ready to break things
— Helen E Jones (@helen_e_jones) May 11, 2016
I first saw the word “ex pat” applied to people like me when I started researching moving to Sweden. I never liked it, but I never really had the motivation to make a fuss about it. It felt uncomfortable but harmless.
Now, a month out from the EU referendum, a range of UK political and civil institutions are stepping up their attempts to encourage me to register and vote by targeting me in ads served to British citizens in Sweden. Or as they like to call us, ex pats.
I’ve had time to digest my reaction to this word over the last two years, and I can’t see it as harmless any more. Stop calling me an ex pat.
Let’s be real. The only kinds of people who are routinely referred to as ex pats are native English speakers from majority-white countries.
It’s what you get called when you have emigrated, but you’re not the sort of person normally associated with the term “immigrant”.
Please call me an immigrant. I am an immigrant. I am a migrant. There is absolutely nothing controversial or factually contentious about that. We learned about it in key stage three geography: a person who moves from one country to another is an emigrant from their home country and an immigrant to their host country.
When you exclude certain types of people from the category of “immigrant” because of their place of birth, their class, their native language, you contribute to the demonisation and dehumanisation of immigrants that has been taking place in right-wing tabloid newspapers and gradually seeping through into the wider mainstream media for decades.
The fifth and seventh largest foreign-born populations in the UK are people from Germany and the US. There are more Australians in the UK than Romanians. In 2013 more people moved to the UK from Spain and France combined than Poland, Romania and Lithuania combined.
When you hear the words “migrants” or “immigration”, you probably don’t immediately picture an American marketing executive, or a French chemistry student, or an Australian bartender. But that means you’re not seeing a full picture of what immigration actually is. You only see the side of it which has been dirtied by the word “immigrant” being made dirty.
There is nothing dirty about moving from one country to another. If you think that it’s fine that I, a white, British, middle class, native English speaking woman chose to pursue a life in a foreign country then I’m afraid you also have to think it’s fine for someone from India or Latvia or Nigeria to do the same. Because we are categorically the same. It’s dishonest to put me in a different category in order to justify your discomfort with people who aren’t sufficiently similar to you.
The last time I got annoyed about the word ex pat on Twitter, a British friend living in Germany countered with his own reasons for choosing to describe himself as an ex pat. It’s about privilege, he suggested. “Ex pat” implies having the resources to choose to live in another country for as long as it is convenient – not out of necessity.
I understand what he means: I am not here to suggest that, because I moved to Sweden, I know what it’s like to feel forced to leave a home country where jobs and opportunities are scarce, or where human rights are at risk. I’m not saying that the stories of immigrants are all the same. In fact, that’s rather my point. The diverse face of immigration is being washed over by a single, unrepresentative, narrative: low skilled workers undercutting wages and living (at the same time, paradoxically) off benefits.
I’d also point out that many of the people popularly characterised as “immigrants” do live in their host country only as long as it’s convenient. When you look at emigration from Eastern Europe to the UK, much of it is cyclical, with temporary workers who aim to go back when the time is right. And not everyone who fits the standard media definition of “migrant” moves out of necessity. People move for love, they move for work, they move to attain the life they want.When all of those people are referred to in the media as ex pats, regardless of their country of origin, you can start calling me one, too.
Refreshingly, here in Sweden I largely do get accurately labelled as an immigrant, most notably by the Swedish Central Statistics Agency who wrote me a letter last year saying, “we’re approaching you because you’re an immigrant and we have no information about the education you have received”. Fair enough!
One place I see the term cropping up over and over again is in popular news website The Local (tag line: Sweden’s news in English). The website was a haven for me when I was new to the country, but it seems to have an editorial preference for using “ex pat” whenever possible. As well as making me feel uncomfortable about using the site, it can get awkward in a passage like this…
Diego admits some aspects of life here baffle foreigners. He collaborates on a Tumblr blog, An Immigrant in Sweden, where he posts gifs representing expat struggles from being unable to book a good laundry slot to being put on hold for ages by Skatteverket. (Source)
Just call us immigrants, please. It’s really better for everyone that way.