Silent Colonialism
The Expat and Immigrant Power Games

Several White people are sitting on a hotel terrace, in the background you can see a garden and water, further back a Black person is standing
Expats or immigrants? A restaurant in Zambia. | Photo (detail): Sergi Reboredo © picture alliance

Why are there two terms for people that leave their home country to live and work elsewhere? The connotations of the notions “expat” and “immigrant” reveal the colonial power structures that shape migration today.

By James Shikwati

The term “expat” celebrates presence of “whiteness” in the non-Western World. The “immigrant” connotes nonwhite experts in the Western World. As early as the 14th century, ambition, adventure, and success ignited massive movements of populations from Europe to Africa, Americas, and Asia. The narrative of “manifest destiny” which promoted the idea that the White people were divinely ordained to settle and civilize new worlds justified such movements. In the African and mostly non-Western World context, the narrative of manifest destiny plays out in how power and privilege is projected via use of such terms as “expat” and “immigrant.”

The Origin of the “Expat”

Expat in its innocent use derives from Latin “ex” (out of) and “patria” (country, homeland). The expat is any person who leaves to work in a foreign country for a specified period. In its realistic application the term, arguably falsely, connotes any white person working abroad as an expat. The appropriation of the “expat” by the Western World is a continuation of the colonial mentality. In history, the white colonists travelled all over as explorers, preachers, scientists, merchants, and diplomats. Upon their return, the travelers were received as heroes and conquerors of new worlds regardless of atrocities they meted on host communities. It has remained ingrained in the Western mindset that only they monopolize the superiority that can deliver expats to “inferior” regions.

The Western “expat”, backed up by Western press and foreign aid money, has dominated the African landscape ever since its independence: as policy advisors to governments or in the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations. A visit to any African city, one can easily detect where the expats stay and hang out – they create secluded islands of privilege and opulence.

The Other Expat: the “Immigrant”

On the other hand, we have the “immigrant.” The innocent use of the term simply refers to one who leaves his or her home country to stay in a foreign country for a given duration or permanently. The West rarely refers to the Europeans who migrated to other continents as migrants. The term “immigrant” is more emotive in Europe, especially when discussing African and non-white settlers. Of interest to this discussion is the unifying aspect of what drives migration – ambition, adventure, and the quest for success. It is not recorded anywhere, that people can move from their homeland to go and suffer elsewhere, unless of course it is under duress, such as due to slavery.

The African professional who leaves to work in Europe is not considered as an expat. Europe would rather designate them as highly qualified immigrants. The African who leaves to work in Europe as a construction worker, domestic worker, and farm hand – what is referred to as a low-status worker – has led to the European Union earmarking funds to contain them within Africa. All “expats” qualify as immigrants but the typical application of the term immigrant in Western narratives focuses on nonwhite people moving to White dominated countries. These two terms, “expat” and “immigrant”, have perpetuated silent colonialism in countries that have relied on Western capital and largesse to thrive for decades.

A Matter of Capital

Being classified as an “expat” or an “immigrant” largely depends on the relationship between the country one leaves and the one where one settles in. If one leaves a country characterized by dormant capital – such as is the case for Africa, to one with activated capital such as Europe and United States of America – the upgrade drives narratives to label one as an immigrant. For those who leave countries with activated capital to a destination that is yet to activate their capital – the apparent downgrade leads to a narrative of labeling them as expats.

A white person coming to Africa will easily earn residency stay by choice and can easily move without visas on the continent. The white person may be totally ignorant on a given topic but the likelihood of an African entity hiring them as expat is remarkably high. The reverse is true for an African professional – who may be the actual expert guiding the white expat, but the silent colonialism cannot let them lift their confidence!

The unfolding competition between China and Western countries provides a glimpse on how Africans have involuntarily surrendered their fate to expats whilst proclaiming independence and sovereignty. For instance, it is a norm for African political parties to accept expat “capacity building” and governments to be guided on matters of public policy. In the West, a Chinese seeking to engage in “capacity building” and public policy will be viewed as abhorrent and a threat to national sovereignty and someone attempting to infiltrate the Western system.

The key to balancing out the expat and immigrant power game is for each country to invest in activating its dormant capital and pay close attention to the disruptive power of narratives. A critical review of how people in Africa interpret the terms “expat” and “immigrant” is likely to overhaul how the continent charts its destiny. Africans can ride on ongoing relevant global trends to activate opportunities to reposition the power play between expat and immigrant to the benefit of people on the continent.

The ongoing trends below can be of great leverage in diffusing the expat-migrant power play. One, the momentum where Europeans appear to own up to having culturally dispossessed the continent by returning what they had shipped out in terms of artifacts and skulls of African heroes. Second, the repurposing of historical records as evidenced by movements toppling colonial statues in the United States of America. Third, the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA should lead to a rethink in the prevailing norm to have expats holed up in government ministries across the continent – Black expats matter. Fourth, the interest by the European Union to reorganize its relationship with Africa driven by the fear for African migrants and the fast-spreading Chinese tentacles. Fifth, increased access to digital platforms provides opportunities to counter and provide alternate narratives. Lastly, it boils down to activation of dormant capital through which the continent can boost its own sense of ambition, adventure and success in security, soft power, technology power and diplomacy.