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Editor's note (30 January 2016): The top of this story has been updated to reflect news that occurred in the days since it was first published.

What is an expatriate, exactly? And when is an expat an immigrant — or not?

The word expat is loaded. It carries many connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege — just as the terms foreign worker, immigrant and migrant call to mind a different set of assumptions. It's front and centre currently as US President Donald Trump signed an executive order abruptly banning immigrants, short and long-term visa-holders and, for a time, green card-holders, from certain countries from entering the US.

What makes one person an expat, and another a foreign worker or migrant?

But what makes one person an expat, and another a foreign worker or migrant? Often the former is used to describe educated, rich professionals working abroad, while those in less privileged positions — for example, a maid in the Gulf states or a construction worker in Asia — are deemed foreign workers or migrant workers. The classification matters, because such language can in some cases be used as a political tool or to dehumanise — as the debate around the word “migrant” suggests.

Expats are defined partly by the temporary nature of their stay abroad (Credit: Getty Images)

Fears surrounding job security, concerns over immigration and nationalism inspire discussion across the globe about who falls into which category. But a key part of this dialogue is how exactly we define different people who cross borders to work.

In the last decade or so, many people, especially those of us from emerging economies such as Nigeria and Peru, have increasingly identified as not just citizens of one nation, but also as part of a global  citizenry, a BBC World Service poll found. But in richer nations, the survey found, the trend among industrialised nations “seems to be heading in the opposite direction.”  At times it seems globalisation is under siege from across the political spectrum.

In the UK and the US, immigration and the movement of workers across borders were two of the defining political issues of 2016. In the UK, it was a key message for the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, which resulted in a public vote for a so-called Brexit. In the US, jobs and immigration were at the forefront of incoming President Donald Trump’s successful campaign.

Weigh in on the question on Facebook: What makes a person an expat?

Clarity and breadth

Dr Yvonne McNulty and Chris Brewster are two academics who have been trying to categorise such people — mostly to give a bit of clarity to human resource types who consider their hires expatriates.

Are maids expats? Yes they are

“It’s not about the colour of your skin, and it’s not about the salary that you earn,” says McNulty, an expat researcher and senior lecturer at the school of human development and social science at SIM University in Singapore.

“Are maids expats? Yes they are. Are construction workers in Singapore that you see on the building sites expats? Yes they are,” she says.

A business expatriate, she says, is a legally working individual who resides temporarily in a country of which they are not a citizen, in order to accomplish a career-related goal (no matter the pay or skill level) — someone who has relocated abroad either by an organisation, by themselves or been directly employed by their host country.

City workers drinking at a British style pub in Boat Quay, Singapore (Credit: Alamy)

But in practice that’s not really how most of us define expat, both in academia and among the general population, says Brewster, a professor of international resource management at Henley Business School in the UK.

No-one thinks about them, no-one studies them

“Both groups of people, when they talk about expatriates, are talking about rich, educated, developed elites,” he says. “Others are just migrants or immigrants. But logically that’s not the correct way to look at these things.

“There’s probably more of these ‘others’ than there are of these highly expensive people but no-one thinks about them, no-one studies them. If they’ve studied them at all they’ve called them migrants.”

We’ve got migrants all wrong

That’s all wrong, Brewster says. Migrants, by definition “are people who intend to go and live in a county for a long time and they’re not allowed to. They have to go home when they’ve completed their assignment,” he says.

Just calling everyone who lives abroad an expat won’t really change some realities

Whether someone is an expat or not doesn’t depend on origin – it’s about the motivations behind their decision to move abroad, says Malte Zeeck, founder and co-CEO of InterNations, the world’s largest expat network, with 2.5 million members in 390 cities around the world.

InterNations founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck (Credit: InterNations)

“Just calling everyone who lives abroad an expat won’t really change some political and socioeconomic realities,” he adds. While there are many types of expat with many different reasons to move abroad, “for people that we today call expats… living abroad is rather a lifestyle choice than borne out of economic necessity or dire circumstances in their home country such as oppression or persecution,” Zeeck says. “That’s what differentiates them from refugees or economic migrants and not their income or origin.”

Defining an expat is something Zeeck dealt with from Day One of InterNations.

“Immigrants are usually defined as people who have come to a different country in order to live there permanently, whereas expats move abroad for a limited amount of time or have not yet decided upon the length of their stay,” he says.

In its early days, InterNations set out to reach assignees – often in management positions – sent abroad by their employers. But Zeeck quickly realised this traditional definition was too strict and arcane a way to consider this group.

Most of us who move overseas to work do so in hopes of bettering our lives

As more of us live out the globalisation of world populations, as our travel behaviours change and our working habits shift to a more free-flowing, borderless and sometimes nomadic style, these definitions have had to be reviewed and revised.

“I use expat in a much broader sense of the word, describing rather someone who decides to live abroad for a specified amount of time without any restrictions on origin or residence,” Zeeck says. That includes an awful lot more people than just those sent on assignment with a multinational.

Leave supporters cheer as the results come in at a EU referendum party in central London in 2016 (Credit: Getty Images)

Defining the impact

Changing definitions is one thing, but there’s still a large divide in the working conditions of, for instance, a banker in Geneva and a construction worker in Qatar. Qatar has come under fire for the working conditions of those building World Cup stadiums. For example, rights group Amnesty International claimed that construction workers at a World Cup stadium lived in squalid conditions, had wages withheld and passports confiscated. Following the controversy, Qatar has banned the controversial 'kafala' labour system that forced foreign workers to seek their employer's permission to change jobs or leave the country, though rights groups say this will do little to prevent abuses of workers in the Gulf state.

But while there might be progress being made in Qatar and other countries — in Brazil, for example — there’s still a very real privilege gap between the people traditionally thought of as expats and those given different labels.

Foreign laborers work at the construction site of a football stadium in Qatar in 2015 (Credit: Getty Images)

Whatever the moniker or motivation, most of us who move overseas to work do so in hopes of bettering our lives – whether the draw is money or experience, says Zeeck.

“We’re in the position to help shape this word — expat,” he says, “How we define it definitely helps with that.”

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