From Labels to Empowerment: Redefining Narratives and Creating Opportunities for Migrants

Breaking Barriers and Unleashing Potential. Panel of Female speakers IWD 2023- PMW

Expat or migrant? Can you spot the difference?

Have you ever noticed how certain words used to describe similar things or situations can convey different connotations, sometimes even with a negative spin? Let’s take the words ‘Expat’ and ‘Migrant,’ for example. ‘Expat’ is commonly used to refer to people who move from one country temporarily, often intending to go back to their original country. While ‘Migrant’ refers to those who have made a long-term move often intending to be permanent. Both migrants and expats often find work abroad.


I’ve observed that some individuals prefer to identify themselves as ‘expats’ even when they have permanently relocated. Conversely, some who identify as migrants carry a sense of shame, trying to shed their ‘migrant-ness’ and blend in at all costs. So, why does the term ‘migrant’ can carry such a negative connotation? What dominant narratives underlie this label that makes them feel unworthy, invisible, excluded, or unsafe?


I’ve had the privilege of meeting countless migrants who hold professional degrees from prestigious universities and had successful careers abroad. However, it seems that upon migration, their country of origin, appearance, or accent cast a shadow of low expectations upon them. It is as if their life experience counts for little or nothing if they don’t come from one of ‘those countries’ where your Anglo-sounding name, university studies, and work experience grant you a higher level of consideration and esteem, or even the more favourable label of ‘expat’.


These low expectations associated with migrants, are based on stereotypes and biases and can have significant consequences in terms of discrimination and limited opportunities. Let’s explore some examples of how low expectations can impact individuals.


Stereotyping and Bias:

When we are exposed to narratives that perpetuate negative stereotypes and biases towards migrants, it shapes how we perceive and treat them. These biases lead to assumptions that individuals from these groups are less capable, intelligent, or skilled. Such preconceived notions lay the foundation for discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.


Research shows that one of the most effective ways to break these stereotypes is to get to know people from different backgrounds and understand their stories. In the absence of a first-hand experience, it is recommended to read books, listen to podcasts, attend talks, or participate in activities that can bring us closer to the insight we want to achieve. This new knowledge brings clarity, builds bridges, humanises people, and makes us more empathetic and compassionate.


Discrimination in Education:

Low expectations often manifest in educational settings, where migrant children or international students may face biased treatment. Teachers and administrators may unconsciously (or even consciously) hold lower expectations for their performance and academic achievements. Consequently, as these students are not expected to do well, they are excluded from activities, resources, or challenging opportunities, limiting their educational growth and potential.


To bridge this gap, students and their families need to build close relationships with the school or university community, encouraging them to explore, communicate and participate actively in academic life, not letting anyone dictate the limits of their interests or potential. As for teachers and administrators, they need to remain open-minded about culturally diverse students and their potential and actively seek to eliminate bias, prejudice, and discrimination.


Limited Employment Opportunities:

Low expectations translate into limited employment opportunities for migrants. Implicit biases held by employers influence their hiring decisions, often favouring candidates from dominant groups over equally or more qualified individuals from marginalised backgrounds. It also plays a part in career progression, where culturally diverse employees are excluded from professional development and networking opportunities. This systemic bias contributes to a lack of diversity in workplaces and perpetuates the cycle of limited opportunities.


To overcome this bias, some recruiters and organisations are implementing systems, processes, and practices such as inclusive job ads, diverse interview panels, and ‘blinding resumes’ to provide equal opportunities. For example, by blinding resumes, any data that can identify a person as being culturally diverse or any other grounds for discrimination is removed, such as names, universities, and countries. They also eliminate further bias by removing any indication of gender and years when studies were completed or positions were held.


Narrowed Social Networks:

Systemic low expectations also affect social interactions and networks. When individuals from migrant or minority backgrounds are perceived as less worthy or capable, they often face exclusion or isolation, making it difficult for them to access valuable connections, mentorship, career advancement opportunities or civic participation. This lack of diverse networks further exacerbates the limited opportunities available to them.


Joining groups of people with similar interests, exploring new hobbies, and finding communities where migrants can feel safe by being who they are. This increases their chances to successfully develop their potential, participate in all aspects of society and give back to the community, breaking the cycle of exclusion and isolation for themselves and others behind them.


Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:

Sadly, low expectations can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein individuals internalise the negative perceptions and beliefs imposed upon them. Constant reinforcement of being seen as inferior or less intelligent erodes self-confidence and motivation, leading to underperformance or diminished aspirations. Unfortunately, this reinforces the false narrative that individuals from these backgrounds are inherently less capable.


Increasing representation of culturally diverse people in all positions where decisions are made and bringing visibility to those who are doing great things in the community and workplaces contribute to the way migrants see themselves and what they can aspire to be.


So, what do we do? accept the ‘low expectations’ narrative or choose to build a new one?


I believe that to address these challenges, we must make concerted efforts to develop systems that promote equal opportunities and inclusivity while challenging stereotyping, bias, and discrimination. By recognising the inherent value and potential of all individuals, regardless of their background, we can strive for a cohesive and compassionate society that provides equal access to education, employment, and other opportunities for everyone. Together, we can build a brighter and more equitable future.


By Fabiola Campbell