The 'Whites-Only' Russian Party in Sri Lanka - Where White People are Expats and Everyone Else is an Immigrant
The expat label has traditionally been reserved for white, upper class white-collar workers in foreign countries.
Lavan Kandiah
Other Professional
Toronto, Canada
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The recent news of certain Russian individuals in Sri Lanka throwing a whites-only party near the town of Galle doesn’t need much analysis to see the obvious racism and disrespect for a country that took them in. But it does highlight an interesting double standard: the very different ways in which society labels white and non-white migrants. 

While Russia is a large source of tourism for Sri Lanka, many of the Russians currently in Sri Lanka are not tourists; they are individuals who have fled Russia to avoid conscription into the military. While it is not clear if the individuals who planned this whites-only party are draft evaders, an interesting element of news coverage around this party is the wording used to describe Russians and Ukrainians who have traveled to Sri Lanka since the war in Ukraine began. They are almost exclusively referred to as travelers, tourists or expats, rather than refugees, migrants, or immigrants.

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According to the UN, individuals fleeing military conscription can, in certain circumstances, claim refugee status; it is unclear if the Russians who fled to Sri Lanka are going through any refugee claim; however, Russians who fled to Sri Lanka and are working locally, like the party venue’s owner, would qualify for the migrant worker label. But the titles of refugee or migrant worker are not typically given to white migrants. For example, I worked with the UN’s counter-trafficking unit in Ghana in 2019 and 2020, providing services for Ghanaians who had returned to Ghana after spending time overseas and were in need of support; in my time there, expat community was the commonly used term for local communities of white foreigners, regardless of how long these individuals had lived there. Even Canadians and Brits who had spent several years in Ghana for work, or had created deep roots and started families locally, were nevertheless always seen as expats. In contrast, local born-and-raised Ghanaians we worked with who had similarly left Ghana for better opportunities overseas were exclusively referred to as migrant workers or migrants in all our communications. This was true even for Ghanaians who had worked overseas and returned home to restart their lives locally; even at home, they were still referred to as migrants. 

There’s pretty clear evidence that the term expat has some racist and classist undertones. Who gets to be labeled an expat instead of a migrant “depends on social class, country of origin and economic status.” The expat label has traditionally been reserved for white, upper class white-collar workers in foreign countries. An Indian doctor working in Canada is almost certainly going to be viewed and referred to as an immigrant or migrant, regardless of whether their relocation is temporary or permanent. A white person teaching English in Thailand for several years however, will always be an expat. 

A common narrative on social media around this whole whites-only party is how bold someone has to be to go to another country for safety, and then pull a stunt like that on the local people who welcomed them in. As Tamil refugees and immigrants in the diaspora, I can confidently say that most of us were raised with ideals of gratitude and humility, at least on some level, for being where we are and not having to deal with the struggles our parents dealt with. However, if you’re not considered a migrant or refugee, but rather an expat from a rich country bringing value and skills to the developing world, maybe this gratefulness and humility gets lost in favour of elitism. While the Sri Lankan government canceled free visas for Russian nationals after the news of the party broke, it’s been widely speculated that the government is unlikely to stick to this for long given how much money Russian tourists bring to Sri Lanka. This may unfortunately only reinforce the differentiation between white travelers and non-white migrants.

Ultimately, whether we're escaping war, conscription or seeking  a better life abroad, we are all the same regardless of where we come from – migrants. Painting everyone with the same brush could be a tiny step towards erasing the lopsided double-standard that separates expats from everyone else.



Lavan Kandiah
Other Professional
Toronto,  Canada
Raised in Norway and Canada. Project manager, fitness enthusiast and BJJ addict who enj...
Raised in Norway and Canada. Project manager, fitness enthusiast and BJJ addict who enj...
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