Expats or immigrants in Italy: What's the difference?

The Local Italy
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Expats or immigrants in Italy: What's the difference?
What makes someone an expat or an immigrant? File photo: Pexels

Most of us who have made the move to Italy have at one point wrestled with the decision of how to define ourselves. If you're a foreigner living in Italy, does that make you an expat? Or an immigrant?


The subject is a sensitive one, and it's close to impossible to please everyone.
Whenever The Local includes the word 'expat' in an article or headline, it tends to spark fierce debate over the use of the word.
Some readers advise us to change the offending word to "immigrants" – because that's exactly what all are.
"I'm a proud European who used my right to move country and not an 'expat'," said reader Martin Cooper, commenting on an article about Brexit by The Local France. "It totally sends the wrong message to our citizens in our new country and to our old homeland."
Elaine Jacobs added: "There is something wrong with the word "ex-pats". It reeks of British colonialism, rather than movement."
Some said using the term expat "contributed to a dangerous populist rhetoric". 
But on the other hand, some staunchly defended the word. 
"I think people make far too much fuss about the word 'expat'. As long as it's used in its neutral sense, it's fine," said another commenter, Simon Barnes.
"But to conflate freedom of movement within the EU and immigration is dangerous. It just gives ammunition to those who would deprive us of our freedom." 

So what does expat actually mean?

If you move to Italy out of choice, are you an expat? File photo: Pexels
The Oxford dictionary defines expat as "a person who lives outside their native country" and the word stems from the Latin ex meaning "out" and patria meaning "native country". 
So all foreigners are expats, right? Well, that's the problem - when did you last hear a Syrian refugee, an Egyptian in Italy, or a Polish worker in Britain referred to as an "expat". 
The word "expat" conjures up post-colonial images of well-off foreigners who have made some kind of comfortable and temporary country switch. 
We're talking those people who spend their days lazing around in a piazza with a glass of wine or an Aperol Spritz, either living in a nice part of one of the big cities, or a spacious villa out in the countryside. The ones with a decent income (or at least a decent bank balance).

File photo: Didriks/Flickr
And what's an immigrant?
An 'immigrant' is "a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country", says the Oxford dictionary.
So the only difference, in terms of strict definition, is that an immigrant is there on a permanent basis. An expat, meanwhile, is more likely to be on a (perhaps long-term) return ticket. 

File photo: Pexels
Any differentiation between the two is at best random - and at worst, racist. 
The word expat comes with connotations of choice and wealth, while 'immigrants' are assumed to work in low-paid jobs or claim benefits. 
An opinion piece in UK newspaper The Guardian went as far as to say that the word expat is a "hierarchical word" that was "created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else".
The issue is reminiscent of the recent media attention to the words "migrant" and "refugee", with many papers making the switch to refugee earlier this year as the crisis got worse and it became clearer that most of the people were fleeing for their lives from war rather than undertaking the dangerous journey on a whim or out of choice.
So why use the word expat at all?
When The Local was founded, we generally avoided using the word. So why do we use it today – apart from the fact that it's much easier to fit 'expat' into a headline?
First, because although we are uneasy about the word, many people who move freely for their careers or for the lifestyle use it to define themselves. 

File photo: Pexels
Second, because there is a meaningful distinction to be made between groups of immigrants. But it's not one of hierarchy, it's really one of luck.
'Expat', logically or not, is understood to describe the lucky immigrants who move country for the lifestyle or a good job. These people might stay for life or they might not, but there's usually little to stop them returning - in contrast to people who are forced to move for fear of their lives or to escape poverty.
So expats face different – and lesser –  challenges than most other immigrants. Saying 'expat' is not an attempt to place one set of immigrants above another; it's an acknowledgement that the immigrant experience varies enormously. 
And finally, we acknowledge that expats are immigrants too. The two terms are not mutually exclusive. And as much as finances or cultural capital divide immigrants, our common struggles with language and adapting to Italian culture unite us.
So: expat or immigrant? Why not both?
A version of this article was first published on The Local France by Oliver Gee.


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