Will you be an Immigrant or Expat after Brexit?

People being rescued before getting to Aquarius. Photograph: Karpov/AFP/Getty Images

29th March 2019

This date strikes fear into the hearts of all British immigrants living on the continent, and European expats living in the UK. It’s the date that we are supposed to leave the European Union.

Whilst this date is not for sure, it still symbolises uncertainty. Uncertainty for the United Kingdom and its future. Moreover, instability in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and expats in Europe and the UK.

Wait, shouldn’t that be British expats and European immigrants?

Situations like this throw up many political and intellectual debates; from if the election was fair, to if the EU is an undemocratic entity. The big question for many is: What will happen to all the people whose lives have been formed around the EU?

Whatever your opinion about the European Union there is no denying that it has shaped many people’s lives, and even more retirement plans.

Expat or immigrant

When we talk about different groups of people we attribute different nouns to label them. Many of the British living in the south of Spain or France are self-described expats. Yet, I have hardly heard anyone from Spain, Germany or France describe themselves as an expat in the UK. Maybe it’s just in hot countries?

Also, for that matter, I have never heard any of the British newspapers or any British citizens referring to Europeans as European expats.

The word expatriate is used in German: Auswanderer; French: expatrié and Spanish: expatriado. Apparently, they have the same problem as we do in English. People using this expression to differentiate themselves from ‘others’. The ‘others’ refers to people who are not from white capitalist rich countries. They use language to separate themselves.

Many people say it’s just language, however language can have strong implications. It could be the difference between being labelled anti-sematic and anti-Zionist. It can also tell you a lot about a person, if someone labels themselves as English and not British, then statistically they were more likely to have voted to leave in the EU referendum.

How often do you hear the word immigrant used in a good way in a report or news paper?

Is the future bright for either?

I currently live in Madrid, the capital of Spain. In June 2018, Spain accepted a group of 600 plus immigrants, on a boat called Aquarius managed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) and SOS Mediterranean, that had been rejected by Italy. This caused a lot of controversy and headlines in Spain and around the world. Two weeks later it accepted another boat in a similar situation.

With the news of the immigrant’s arrival, it made me wonder if I will ever be subjected to this unwelcome feeling. What if Britain gets in a worse than it already is? Surely, I will be a political refugee?

Now I am legally allowed to work in Madrid, I pay social security, taxes, I have access to healthcare and I have the right to vote in local elections. Yet, after Brexit many of these I may lose. My future along with many others depends on how the government manages the negotiations with Europe.

Before in Spain, if you were a new immigrant you had to wait at least 90 days until you could access healthcare. This was part of the immigration law set by the PP. Thankfully, the new socialist government is hoping to roll back the 90 day rule and give universal access to healthcare.

Could access to healthcare be withheld even thought I have paid into their system? Will I even be allowed to work? How much will a visa to stay cost me? For people in many countries, including the UK, these are concerns.

Not really the in same boat

Different people have different concerns, but many still see themselves as secular when compared to the immigrants of Africa or the middle east. The truth is after March 2019, we won’t be. It’s important to remember we have never been different, we are all human, some of us were just lucky in the birth lottery.

The truth is that in the eyes of western society I am an ‘expat’. I self-describe as an immigrant, but this will not change how I am viewed by others. As a white male from a developed capitalist society I wouldn’t be described as an immigrant, even if I want to be.

The EU has some of the strictest immigration rules in the world. In Spain you must be able to support yourself and your family and have health care cover. However, many won’t have this, and they will have to jump through hurdles to try and stay where they have already created a life for themselves. That’s if there isn’t a deal at all.

If they take my right to work away, then I’m no better off than the thousands of people working illegally in greenhouses on the south of Spain or the people that go around selling fake trainers and football T-shirts on the streets of capital cities across Europe.

But we could have the same problems in future

The Windrush Generation

We may be from Great Britain, but it isn’t so great at looking after citizens from Europe. It became apparent when they struggled to look after their own citizens after the screw up that was Windrush.

Both immigrants from Europe and Britain face levels of uncertainty that haven’t been experienced since the Second World War.

The problems that British and European immigrants will face will be on the front of the news for weeks, it will get wall to wall coverage and there will be a lot of pressure from companies, political groups and ballot groups to fix this problem. People will write blogs and books about it and maybe even make a terrible film.

I’m sure no matter how hard it is and how bad it gets, it will never be as bad as leaving your family behind to earn money in another country, it won’t be running away from war, totalitarian governments or famine. It will never be the refugee crisis we are facing today and will continue to face in the future. Yes, displaced people because of climate change is a thing.

These uncertainties are seen daily from poorer parts of the world. We will be getting a very small taste of what it is like on the other side of the border, but we won’t have to risk our lives in small boats- at worst we will have to fly Ryanair.

What can be done

If we all stop pretending that we are privileged expats and start acting in solidarity with immigrants, stop pretending we are better than them, then maybe we will be able to achieve something together.

One small way to start this is by using the correct terminology and urging the establishment and press to do the same.

Education on immigration terms should be a point for governments and their policy. Organisations and retailers should boycott news outlets that use terminology incorrectly or in a malice way. This inaccurate use of words is linguistic hegemony used by the state and the press against the poor. It turns us against our fellow human beings.

I’m not saying there is a right and wrong way to describe ourselves, immigrant, migrant, expat or tourist. I’m not bothered. I’m just asking people to consider there use of language and notice that there is a difference between the use of words.

There is no difference between humans, no matter what words you use. Some are just luckier than others. In the past Spain had refugees. So did Great Britain…

There is a hope for the future; we can start now by changing our terminology in conversation and on social media. We can use language: for solidarity and for the people.

Because whether you like it or not we can all be come an immigrant or refugee at one point in the future.

British Refugees going to New Zealand in WW2 1940

Basque Refugees going to Britain in the Civil War


– It wasn’t written to win the argument of expat vs immigrant, it’s a boring argument.

– I don’t have or claim to have the answers to the worlds immigration problems. If I did I wouldn’t be writing this shitty blog.

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