Expatriates or immigrants? Navigating in-between categories in the Netherlands This collage is part of the EXPATS X MIGRANTS project and includes photographs by Tetsuro Miyazaki. With courtesy of the EXPATS X MIGRANTS team.

Expatriates or immigrants? Navigating in-between categories in the Netherlands

How do migrants navigate different identity categories, like ‘expatriates’ and ‘immigrants’? What power relations do these categories reproduce and challenge? Camila, Daniela, Maria, and Natacha conducted research on migration and belonging in the Netherlands. In this blog, they share some of their main findings.

"You can't have immigrants and expats, like both people [are] the same thing. It's just that you're sugar coating one, (…) you're just grouping people in different buckets”, a participant of Bulgarian background told us during an online interview in January 2022. Her words summarise something we had been mulling over since our arrival in the Netherlands, some years before this encounter. Throughout our stay, all of us have been labelled as expatriates or immigrants according to our appearance and the context in which we found ourselves. Our experiences with these labels are what motivated us (Camila, Maria, Natacha, and Daniela) to focus our Fieldwork NL research project on issues of migration identity in the Netherlands. In particular, we wanted to explore the blurred boundaries between these terms, how they lead to and change migrants’ identities within the Dutch context, how other migrants navigate these labels, and which power relations they reinforce.

To find an answer to these questions, we designed a mixed-method research project that combines participant observation, a quantitative survey, and in-depth interviews with people with a migration background. As our primary field sites, we chose community and neighbourhood centres in the multicultural cities of Amsterdam and The Hague. Unfortunately, the lockdown enforced to curb the spread of Covid-19 from December 2021 until January 2022 limited our possibilities of attending events and daily activities. Alongside our supervisor, Irene Moretti, we redirected our attention to document analysis and online tools for surveying and interviewing. We administered our survey by sharing it on social media platforms and within our personal network and gathered 147 responses. We complemented this data with 27 online interviews with people who migrated to the Netherlands and personally related their migratory experiences to the complex labelling process. By analysing our fieldwork material through the lenses of anthropological theories, we were able to unveil the blurred lines between the categories of expats and immigrants, as well as assumptions about migrants’ experiences of belonging.

In-between social and legal categories

We spent our first days of fieldwork analysing Dutch immigration policies- on the IND website- and the websites of organisations that target ‘expats’ as their primary audience (e.g. IamExpat). To our surprise, we discovered that the labels expatriates and immigrants hold different legal and social power. The term ‘immigrant’ is a legal category that refers to someone who voluntarily moves across nation-states for political, environmental, or economic reasons; the term ‘expat’ is not to be found in any official document. Rather, it is socially constructed depending on the local perception of the socioeconomic status of the migrant’s home country.

Data from our analysis of definitions of ‘expatriates’ and ‘immigrants’ showed us that the legal and social nature of these labels – which are mostly used in so-called Global North contexts – illustrate the existing political and economic power relations between nation-states. Political affiliations trickle down to the societal level, infiltrating the agency and mobility of citizens who aspire to migrate. These terms become politicised into ‘categories of practice’: bearing subjective, socially influenced, polysemic, and malleable meanings. The migrants we encountered – coming from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia – were labelled ‘immigrants’ regardless of their socioeconomic status and work skills. Migrants coming from North America, Europe and New Zealand were immediately perceived as ‘expatriates’. The meanings attributed to the ‘migrant’ labels are part of an interactive process between legal procedures and social interactions. Adding to the layers of the labels, visas are another factor that may reinforce a migrant's social position. For example, some visas, such as the partner visa, require migrants to learn Dutch whereas others exempt it. Lastly, the requirements of each visa also vary between countries and citizens of North America, Europe and Oceania who are also exempted from learning Dutch.

We see that there are power relations regarding nationality, race, and social status that result in discriminatory encounters that are socially and politically experienced by migrants. For instance, though the word ‘expatriate’ is not a legal category, the participants holding a highly-skilled migrant visa shared that they were perceived as having more social freedom. In terms of legal obligations, individuals who hold the former visa are not required to learn Dutch. Our interlocutors felt like this differentiation gave them a privileged social status. Such legal and social ramifications impact how migrants define the terms and attach a degree of negative or positive connotations to them. These processes of label-making are continuously negotiated as migrants decide the extent to which the terms fit their identity.

Experiencing and navigating migration through categories

“Immigrant always sounds a bit negative, I don't know, more like a refugee or something, […] I know I am really an immigrant because an expat is somebody sent by a company, and they pay [for] your tickets and all… That, for me, is an expat. But every time somebody asks me, I will say that I am an expat.” As an example of the continuous process of label-making, one of our participants considers herself to be an immigrant. However, she intentionally chooses to identify as an ‘expatriate’ because the term elevates her status and avoids the negative connotation of an ‘undesired migrant’."

Similarly, other interviewed migrants shared that they choose between these identity labels depending on the situation. A participant told us that it was advantageous for her to hold a Bulgarian passport when dealing with bureaucracies. At the same time, she was aware of the stigma Eastern Europeans are subjected to and prefers to hide her nationality behind her American accent on social occasions, thus intentionally affiliating herself with the category of expatriates. The way people of different nationalities are treated socially and legally sheds light on the influence of global power relations in everyday life. This becomes even more evident when looking at migrants from non-EU countries, and the passports they carry.

Migrant blogpost
This collage is part of the EXPATS X MIGRANTS project and includes photographs by Tetsuro Miyazaki. With courtesy of the EXPATS X MIGRANTS team.

Culturally negotiated belonging

A participant from New Zealand had a smooth and straightforward process when coming to the Netherlands. His socioeconomic status, work skills and the political affiliations between the Netherlands and New Zealand are embodied in his assigned visa as a highly-skilled migrant. This visa, which is sponsored by the hiring company, exempts him from learning Dutch, automatically surpassing the need for an integration exam. He is socially referred to and treated as an ‘expatriate’ in both bureaucratic encounters and social settings.

Unlike him, a participant from Colombia went through an uncertain and demanding migratory process. She came to the Netherlands with a partner visa, which required her to take a Dutch language course at her expense and an integration exam. Through her partner visa, a sensitive balance manifests as her stay depends on her relationship status. As certain migrants from the Global North are exempted from these procedures, migration policies can be seen to implicitly assume a cultural similarity within Global North individuals, therefore making integration unnecessary, or a secondary priority. She is legally and socially an ‘immigrant’ due to Colombia’s socio-political affiliations with the Netherlands. Consequently, she bears the weight of this pejorative label that leads to her stigmatisation as an ‘undesired migrant’.

Labels with a long history

Anthropology gives us the tools to uncover the long-standing assumptions that result in the label-making of migrants. It places the individual at the centre of our research, by focusing on how migrants manoeuvre the categories and enact social freedom by taking conscious decisions about their identity labelling. Our Fieldwork NL research uncovered the complexities of migrants’ identity categories as enacted politically and experienced socially. It showed the extent to which categories are subjective, fluid and contingent.

The terms ‘allochtoon’ and ‘autochtoon’ are an emic example of ‘categories of practice’ used in a Dutch linguistic context to refer to migrants. Drawing a parallel between expatriates/immigrants and allochtoon/autochtoon allows us to reflect on how migrants’ categorizations are part of local and global power dynamics. A US citizen who moved to the Netherlands 30 years ago, recalled that “‘Autochtoon’ was a Dutch person, and ‘allochtoon’ was an immigrant […] when I moved to the Netherlands, I thought, oh, I'm an allochtoon, and they will say no, you are from the US, you are not one of them”. Though the use of the terms ‘allochtoon’ and ‘autochtoon’ are not used legally anymore, similarly to the word ‘expatriates’, each set of categorisations has social implications.

Power relations and hierarchical social structures become evident in the way migrants identify themselves. We understand the categories of ‘expatriates’ and ‘immigrants’ as coproduced by transnational power relations and historical understandings, which we explored within the Dutch context. Through the findings of our Fieldwork NL project, we argue that categories are subjective and contingent while being experienced differently by different people, due to individual characteristics of race, ethnicity, social status and current social realities. Most notably, categories of labelling proved to be blurred and fluid, holding a great significance for the personal experiences of migrants – which sparked our curiosity for the topic. Regardless of where migrants come from, they all share their humanity, the possible feeling of being out of place, and the challenges of adjusting their identities. This blog post is an introduction to the multi-sided and complex realities of migration and label-making processes, that are relevant, contextual and ever-changing, making it a great opportunity for further exploration and research.

Camila, Daniela, Maria, and Natacha recently graduated from the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. This blog post is a result of the second-year course Fieldwork NL. Fieldwork NL is a second year’s course of the Bachelor’s programme in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. Over the course of two semesters, students work in small groups to conduct research on a subject of their choice – from literature review and fieldwork to dissemination.


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