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The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest figures on net migration last week, spurring headlines about ‘record breaking immigration’ to the UK.

While net migration has remained more or less consistent at 335,000 since first breaking records in March 2016, the new data shows that there was an increase in the number of EU citizens migrating to the UK, prior to the referendum. However, there hasn’t been a stark rise in net migration since last year, suggesting that it is stabilising overall.

Predictably, the response from politicians has been devoid of any nuance: a familiar chorus of panic about immigration being too high, calls for numbers to come down, and more vows to reduce migration to the UK.

When discussing immigration to the UK, it’s easy to fall into a trap of inflammatory rhetoric about numbers. Yet, at a time of deep social and political division, we must try to get beyond the populist debate on immigration.

Here are some points to keep in mind when chatting with friends and family about immigration:

1. Most migrants looking for work are heading to places where there is demand for workers.

The ONS has captured data on migrant origins and destinations, noting regional differences in growth. Nearly 40 percent of the growth was in London and the South East. While the increase in the South East was statistically significant, it isn’t surprising that migrants are drawn to these areas. London in particular has a long history of migration, but both have thriving local economies. The latest labour market statistics from the ONS in November show that the South East has the highest employment rate at 78 percent. London comes in at 73.6 percent, which is a record high for the capital, and it also added the most number of jobs (54,000).

The distribution of migrants matters because it reveals that migrant destinations tend to be determined by patterns of growth in the economy. In other words, migrants are more likely to go where the probability of finding a job is high and are thus concentrated in particular cities and regions where they can meet a demand for workers.

2. What is considered ‘too high’ a level of migration in Teesside, for example, may be considered low in London.

Some cities and regions have a greater capacity to absorb high levels of migration than others. Usually, these tend to be more prosperous places that are in a position to accommodate a growing population.  

In areas where migration appears to be lower, but opposition is high, we should look out for fierce competition at the bottom of the labour market coupled with low levels of integration. The capacity of these places to absorb migrants is weak, regardless of whether their levels of migration are relatively low. What constitutes a high number of migrants is subjective, depending on capacity, or even perceptions of capacity. The good news is that capacity can be built over time.

Given what we know about trends in distribution, we can also plan ahead to address potential pressures on housing, schools and public services. While it can be challenging for even our most moneyed cities to build enough homes, add more school places, and keep waiting times down at the doctor’s, as net contributors to our public finances migrants are helping to support and strengthen our public infrastructure. As net contributors, migrants contribute more to the collective coffer than they take out, ideally enabling places with higher levels of migration to respond to increased demands on the state.

3. Economic and social policies are more useful for addressing concerns about numbers than immigration policies.

The repeated failure of the government to meet its net migration target in spite of increasingly stringent immigration policies suggests that we’re reaching the limits of what we can do here without making huge economic sacrifices. Rather than continuing to go after students and highly-skilled workers, let’s think about how economic and social policies can build capacity in areas struggling with or resistant to migration.

For example, in these areas we should renew our efforts to improve the quality of jobs and ensure equal access to opportunities. If employers are exploiting migrants by paying them less than the minimum wage, we must enforce proper pay so that wages won’t be squeezed to the detriment of all workers.

While the evidence in aggregate suggests that migrants aren’t negatively impacting wages, the poorest paid workers are slightly affected. The economist Jonathan Portes has described the impact among those earning an average wage of £8 an hour as a reduction in annual pay rises of about a penny an hour. Portes acknowledges that this may be substantial for some low paid workers, but argues that the level of the minimum wage, the decline in trade union power, technological and industrial change have had far bigger impacts on low-level sectors. Workers would be better served by labour market interventions designed in their best interest than restrictions on immigration.

Similarly, we should be investing more in offering English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses rather than slashing funding. The social value outweighs whatever meagre savings we make by denying ESOL to newcomers.

A challenge for future conversations

Here’s a challenge for all of us, but politicians in particular: the next time we feel tempted to make a broad and sweeping statement like ‘immigration to the UK is too high’, let’s try to be more specific about where exactly immigration is too high and follow it up with why we think that is. Succumbing to populism on immigration only served to fan the flames of nationalist fervour during the EU referendum and the presidential election in the US.

To address localised concerns about immigration we need to be far more precise about how we communicate. 

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