It was supposed to be summer in South America, but the low temperatures, intense rain and cold wind in La Paz reminded me of a typical Dutch autumn. It was the first week of January, and I had taken advantage of the holidays to travel from Lima, where I now lived and worked, to Bolivia. That evening, I found myself on the roof terrace of a good friend’s apartment. From where I sat, I could observe how La Paz slowly turned into a sea of small lights, while the slopes of the snow-covered Illimani began to fade into the night.
Surrounding me at the table was a group of my friends’ acquaintances, some European and others Bolivian. During dinner, the conversation jumped innocently from football to traveling to family gossip. However, as the evening progressed, inevitably one of the guests steered the conversation to Bolivian politics, and specifically the successes and failures of president Evo Morales. Within the multitude of comments, both in favour and against Morales, one stood out to me and struck a wrong chord. A Bolivian thirty-something lady with a light skin, double-barrelled surname and thick jailón1 accent, began to gesture impatiently with her arms, causing her bracelets to clank: 'Since Evo took office, those people that migrate from the highlands are invading the cities. It is becoming impossible to endure the chaos, dirt and violence they cause here. They should just stay where they are, and if they do decide to come they should adapt and follow our rules'. Her intervention was followed by a brief silence and I searched for my friends’ eyes, looking to find a sign of indignation. 'Yes', someone said, 'that is indeed the situation we find ourselves in during these difficult times'.
This encounter in La Paz made me reflect on the new life I started in Lima after graduating. Unfortunately, the sentiment expressed by the Bolivian lady was not new to me. In Peru, a similarly paternalistic perception of lower-class provincial Peruvians as naïve, dirty and uneducated was prevalent in the capital and other urban centres along the coast. When rural migrants arrive in Lima, they often lack the financial means to rent a house or buy a piece of land and subsequently occupy unused private lands on the fringes of the city. This enhances the perception that these migrants create chaos and disorder. The paternalistic explanation of this general condition is that lower/class provincial Peruvians lack education and civility, and therefore do not know how to behave and follow the rules of ‘civilized’ Lima. The irregular settlements of migrants along the outskirts of Lima are consistently referred to as 'invasions'.
It was similarly unsurprising that neither I, nor any of the other Europeans present at dinner, were recognized as migrants. As a result of my light skin, my level of education, my English proficiency, my job at an international organization and subsequent high income, I had consistently been labelled an expat. The term ‘migrant’ is reserved for so-called low skilled workers, either from other Latin American countries or from rural regions, attracted among other things by better employment and education prospects in the city. Aside from a few nuances, the paradox of the ‘bad migrant’ (unadapted and burdensome benefit scroungers that also steal jobs) appears strikingly similar across the globe, be it in La Paz and Lima or London and Amsterdam.
I was also confronted with the fact that as an ‘expat’, I would never be associated with this trope, even though ironically ‘expats’ in Lima (and probably elsewhere too) checked quite a few of the ‘bad migrant’ boxes. They often do not speak and do not intend to learn the local language. They tend to integrate almost solely into their own community, attending ‘expat’ events, offered by specialized agencies that invite you to 'join a wide variety of events and activities to meet like-minded expats'2.
Similarly, last week’s 'Expat Tip of the Week' of a well-known agency was: 'Don’t sweat the small stuff! Don’t let everyday annoyances get you down, focus on the positive aspects!'. Reading this reminded me of how in Europe there is often the expectation that migrants should be grateful and happy for the new opportunities that their new society has to offer. From experience, I can say that ‘expats’ are generally far from grateful. I have heard countless complaints about bureaucratic inefficiencies, the local work ethic and even about how hard it is to find a reliable maid that knows how to use a vacuum cleaner.
Finally, and this applies to the expat sub-category of development workers, there is a chance that as an ‘expat’ you are exempt from paying taxes. While I lived in Lima and benefited from all the public infrastructure, I did not pay a single penny in taxes all the while I was earning a wage triple of what would be considered a good Peruvian salary. This made clear to me once more that the true beneficiaries of the development industry, funded largely with public money, are its international employees. Should we conclude, based on these observations, that expats might be the true benefit scroungers, the truly bad migrants?
Of course I do not wish to perpetuate the idea that there is such a thing as a bad migrant, nor that those labelled ‘expats’ form some sort of homogenous group. Nonetheless, I have concluded (and I am certainly not the first to do so, see Kothari3 and Fechter & Walsh4) that the privileges associated with the ‘expat’ label are a direct result of the colonial history and the resulting class and racial hierarchies that have shaped our current global order. It is a reconfigured colonial mind set that caused the Bolivian lady to exclude me from the ‘migrant’ category and her negative associations, while she gladly pinned those on her fellow country mates. It is a shared colonial history that gave rise to the development industry, thereby perpetuating unequal power relationships and dependency. And it is ultimately a neo-colonial world order that shapes today's birth lottery, distinguishing those of us that can move with ease and those that are supposed to stay put. Based on my experience of belonging to that first category, I must confess that ‘expats’ appear eerily similar to the colonial officers of former times.
1 Jailón is Bolivian slang for posh, derived from the English word high and refers to one’s high societal status
2 See: www.internations.org
3 Kothari, U. (2006) ‘Spatial practices and imaginaries: Experiences of colonial officers and development professionals’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 27 (3): 235-253
4 Fechter, M. and Walsh, K. (2010) ‘Examining expatriate continuities: Postcolonial approaches to mobile professionals’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36: 1197: 1210
About the author
Nina Swen graduated from the MSc Migration Studies in 2015. Since, she has lived and worked in Lima for an international development organization and currently resides in Amsterdam.
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.
This post was first published by COMPAS as part of the MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.