Of the 28 European Union member states, which one has the largest population living outside the country?
Answer: the United Kingdom
Immigrants vs. expats
While the U.K. votes to approve the Brexit and leave the E.U. to stop the inflow of foreign immigrants, the fact that 4.9 million of its own citizens are living in other countries goes unmentioned.
For that matter, when was the last time you even heard the term “immigrant” used in connection with U.K. citizens, or citizens of any developed western country? Instead, we call them “expats,” a word which carries very different connotations, but means basically the same thing. Here is how Wikipedia defines them (immigrant, expatriate).
An immigrant is a person who moves to another country.
An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing, as an immigrant, in a country other than that of their citizenship.
In theory, the meanings are essentially the same (by some definitions immigrant includes only permanent residents). But in practice, there is almost no overlap.
I spent a few years working in London, along with several other Americans, some of whom are still there. And never did I think of myself as an immigrant or hear any of my fellow expats described as immigrants. Likewise, immigration may be the single most discussed topic in this year’s U.S. presidential election, but not once have I heard Mexican farm workers living in the U.S. (permanent or temporary) described as expats.
What’s the difference?
In their common usage, an immigrant is someone from a poor country who moves to a rich country looking for a better life. An expat is someone from a rich country who goes to work abroad.
The fact that we have two different terms, one for people from rich countries and one for people from poor countries, is just one clear illustration of how silly our way of talking about immigration is here in the West.
Where are the facts?
As discussed in a previous post, public opinion about immigration has become a deciding factor in some of the most important geopolitical events in the world.
Views on immigration have shaped the world’s response to the refugee crisis, our policies on the war on terror, and this year’s U.S. presidential race. Yet, the basic facts about immigration almost never come up at all in the debate.
How well do we know the basic facts about immigration? Here’s what a study by IPSOS has to say.
“How many immigrants are there?”
For such a fundamental question, developed countries around the world are terribly misinformed. Many believe the number to be several times higher than reality.
“How big is the Muslim population?”
One of the major concerns around immigration is the risk of terrorism by Islamic extremists. How well do countries know the size of their Muslim populations?
At the low end, Germans believe their Muslim population to be 3.2x bigger than it actually is. At the high end, Hungarians overstate their Muslim population by 70x!
What these numbers mean
A few months ago I posted another “perceptions-vs-reality” graphic (Support for ISIS in the Muslim World), which some people misunderstood to be an argument for a particular political view. So in this case, I want to make sure I don’t send any wrong messages about what my point in all this is.
Do these numbers mean the U.K. is wrong to leave the E.U.?
No. Personally, I really don’t know whether the U.K. made the right decision or not. And maybe people’s views would be the same regardless of anything mentioned here.
What these numbers do highlight is the silly way we talk about immigration here in the West.
If “too many immigrants” is going to be our reason for making important decisions (and who knows, maybe it should be), “how many immigrants are there?” is a question we should be able to answer. And before taking measures to stop immigration, we should be brave enough to acknowledge we also have countrymen who live abroad as immigrants and benefit from the immigration policies of other countries.
If you would like to go through the data yourself, you can find it on the get the data page.
Update: In response to some of the comments/requests received on this post, I put together another series of maps that go into some more detail. See how the EU countries stack up in foreign-living citizens per capita, immigrant population, and view an interactive map showing each of their migration inflows and outflows with the rest of the world.
I'm fascinated by data visualization and the ways that data is transforming our understanding of the world. I spend a lot of time with my face buried in Excel, and when I find something interesting I write about it here and as a contributor for the Huffington Post.
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