How to talk about immigration: Better storytelling in a polarised time

Opinion: 5 tips for a better migration narrative

This article was written by Sunder Katwala, Director of the think-tank British Future. For more like this, see our refugees, migration and integration newsfeed.

How should we talk about immigration in polarised times?

Here is one populist story against immigration that most of you will have heard versions of:

“There are too many of them” — a story about numbers. It might be a story about migrants, or ethnic minorities in general, or Muslims in particular, or refugees and asylum seekers.

“They are taking our stuff” — a story about resources. Jobs, housing or school places.

“They are not like us — and they don’t want to be” — a story about identity, belonging and culture; about who “we” are and they are not.

“We aren’t even allowed to talk about it — or they call us racist” —Finally, a frustration about voice and democracy.

Them and us

This populist story against immigration is a story about “them and us”.

Some of us may hear ourselves placed in the “them” camp: a significant number of us may be part of a migrant or minority group that is being cast as a pernicious threat. Note how the “they” changed with that final flourish – that “they won’t even let us talk about it”.

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The blame is directed now not only at incomers and minorities, but at the elites. So this “them and us” story is also a populist complaint about governments and parliamentarians, about business leaders and academics, about civic society, and the media too.  All of “them” don’t want to hear the truth or have an honest debate about what immigration means for our society – because we, the “liberal elites”, don’t want to do what “the people” want.

Avoidance risks reinforcing the conspiracy theory that we are not prepared to talk about difficult issues

Many people might want to counter this story about “them and us” with one that makes a positive case instead. Other institutions may need to communicate accurately about immigration amidst a polarised and noisy debate.


1: Talk about immigration – don’t run away from this conversation.

“We aren’t even allowed to talk about it”. 

It may be natural to recoil from a potent appeal to grievance. “Change the subject” was the tactic adopted by campaigners to stay in the EU during the UK’s 2016 referendum. Whenever immigration came up, those in favour of the EU switched to the economic risks of Brexit.   Avoidance risks reinforcing the conspiracy theory that we are not prepared to talk about difficult issues, becoming the caricature of the “liberal elites” that populists describe.

2: Facts matter – but recognise their limits

If there are myths and misunderstanding, it is natural to check them. Facts matter – in policy-making, and in scrutiny. It is important to make evidence accessible.

Countering emotional arguments on contested topics with “myth-busting” rebuttals is ineffective. People can receive it as a didactic lecture: if you understood the facts, you would agree with me. This can trigger a sense that “its obviously working for people like you, which is why you don’t care about how the pressures feel to me”.

3: In polarised times, think about why different audiences matter

In the UK, like most countries, attitudes to migration are polarised – across social classes, between generations, between cities and smaller towns. Reaching different audiences matter for different reasons.

Campaigns for change will seek to mobilise existing supporters. Securing political and public consent needs argument that make sense to a broader majority. Messages to tackle hate crime and prejudice will fail if they don’t resonate with those with the toughest views.

In polarised times, can you have a conversation, not a shouting match? British Future worked with the Home Affairs Select Committee to hold a National Conversation on Immigration, holding citizens panels in 60 towns and cities across the UK, in part, inspired by efforts at public engagement in Canada, to discuss the choices we should make now.

Most people are balancers – seeing both pressures and gains. We held robust and decent conversations, which were very different to the online discourse, where we found only those with the strongest views at each pole take part.

4: Get beyond “they are good for us” – tell stories of the “new us” instead

There are several intuitive responses to the “them and us” complaint. We have had a long history of immigration. Migrants don’t take out: Treasury data shows a net contribution to the public purse. There are benefits of cultural diversity: we could all agree migration improved our food.

Those are important parts of the truth, and will resonate most with those who need least reassurance. What is less often noticed is that these responses are often “they are good for us” points – however benignly intended, that is still a (softer) “them and us” story.  To transcend that, we need a broader story of the bigger “us” – shared local and national stories about what we share.

5: Tell ordinary stories, not just extraordinary ones.

Refugees have won Nobel prizes and Olympic medals, but reaching for extraordinary stories has its limits.

They are extraordinary by definition — so emphasising these can seem to offer fairytales which don’t recognise the challenges of making it work too. So it is as or more effective to convey the everyday story of how we live together — of the relationships formed, in the classroom, at work and in our neighbourhoods. — Sunder Katwala. 

For a deeper look at this topic, British Future have published How To Talk About Immigration and the National Conversation on Immigration. 

(Photo credit: Pixabay)


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