Students & Campus
16 December 2022

It’s me, hi, I’m the migrant it’s me.

To mark International Migrants Day, Xenia Mejia Chupillon, master student in Development Studies specialising in Mobilities, and Coordinator for the student-run Migration Initiative, examines the use of refugee, migrant and expat labels and how they can be interpreted in certain contexts. 

Human mobility has been a common phenomenon since the beginning of our time. Our nomadic nature is evident at our very core: Homo sapiens left Africa, moved to other regions and eventually found a way to populate nearly every corner of the globe. In this sense, it can be argued that to a certain extent, we are all migrants. And as international students, we are also all migrants here in Geneva. Even if you were born in Switzerland, you might come from another canton.

Nevertheless, the term migrant seems to have many meanings to many people, who appropriate it in different ways. For example, I have been told by many people in Geneva that I am not a migrant but an expat, the difference being that I am doing my master’s here and have a certain skillset, hence, I am not like a ‘normal’ migrant. I do not have any doubt that I am a migrant, but the situation makes me wonder what makes someone a ‘normal’ migrant. Is it a construction worker or a person working in the domestic sector? What if I told them that I have done babysitting and dogsitting activities to fund myself here? Would I be then viewed as a migrant and not an expat anymore?

In this line, I would like to further reflect about the different labels that are used to differentiate people and put them in diverse categories. People tend to create a group of ‘us’ (let’s say the expats, the ‘good’ migrants) vis-à-vis the ‘others’ (the migrants, the refugees). Sometimes, it seems that the perception of being a migrant was linked with being undocumented, having a low-skill job or even being a criminal. The expat label is a selective status difference, coming without the negative connotations embedded in the term ‘migrant’. Almost like a red-carpet entry to any country.

In using terminology in these various ways, conversations, rather than being constructive on what makes someone an expat or a migrant, were more a reproduction of a xenophobic discourse. Maybe for a relationship labels matter – and this perhaps merits a discussion – but in this context, do they?

Given that on 18 December we celebrated International Migrants Day, I wanted to share this story to urge us all to be conscious of our everyday discourse and how it could replicate toxic and xenophobic narratives, maybe without us even realising. We should all bear in mind that regardless of our job and our nationality, we are human beings that left the place we knew as home and moved to a different location to try to pursue our dreams.

In the end, you, me, us, them, we are all migrants, aren’t we?