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Migration to Australia – a brief history

1 March 20180 comments

Australia can make a legitimate claim to being the most successful multicultural society in the world.

At 26-per-cent we have the highest proportion of people born overseas than any other high-immigration nation. And that included New Zealand (23 per cent), Canada (22 per cent), the United States (14 per cent), and the United Kingdom (13 per cent).

Only Saudi Arabia has a higher overseas-born population; but there foreigners are permitted to work for periods but are never offered permanent residency or citizenship.

The Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion survey has found out the past decade that Australia has high levels of social cohesion and support for multiculturalism.

The survey’s author Monash University’s Professor Andrew Markus says 91 per cent of people living in Australia professed a sense of belonging to the nation with 89 per cent expressing pride in our way of life.

He said 83 per cent believed multiculturalism had been a good thing for Australia – in keeping with the results of previous surveys – and 66 per cent said Australians should do more to learn about the culture and customs of different ethnic and cultural groups in the country.

Meanwhile 74 per cent agreed that in their local areas ‘people from different nationalities or ethnic groups get on well together’, down from 78 per cent in       the 2016 census revealed a diverse nation. Nearly half of all Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was.

More than one in five Australians speak a language other than English at home. The most common countries of birth after Australia were England (5 per cent of the population) and New Zealand (2.5 per cent), followed by China (2.3 per cent) and India (2.1 per cent).

Since the mid-2000s, Chinese and Indian arrivals have outpaced arrivals from the UK and migration has replaced births as the driver of population growth.

So how did all this come about? Well, it was not by accident.                                                                                               

The post-World War II Australia government decided the nation must “populate or perish” and so, in 1945, The Department of Immigration was established. Since then, seven million permanent migrants have settled here.

And in 1948 – seventy years ago this year – two things happened. The Immigration Act was changed effectively allowing for the first time non-Anglo Celtic migrants to settle permanently. And Australian citizenship was created – until then Australians had been ‘British subjects’.

It was not quite the end of the ‘White Australia Policy’ but it was a start and the beginnings of the modern, non-discriminatory immigration system we know today.

DNA evidence suggests the first people to migrate to the Australian continent most likely came from South-East Asia between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, according to data from the old Department of Immigration.

Estimates of the Aboriginal population before European settlement range between 300,000 and 1.5 million: some 600 tribes speaking more than 200 distinct languages.

Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people account for 2.8 per cent of the country’s 24 million people.

Most of the first modern migrants to Australia were unwilling arrivals: convicts from Britain sent to the penal colony of New South Wales.

Until the mid-1800s, the population was dominated by British and Irish people. But the discovery of gold near Orange, NSW, in 1851 triggered a gold rush that changed the face of Australia.

Between 1851 and 1860, more than 600,000 migrants arrived: most were from the UK but around 10 per cent came from elsewhere in Europe and seven per cent from China.

Xenophobic hostility toward the newcomers focused on the Chinese, who were regarded as a threat to wages and employment, according to the Department of Immigration’s history.

The tension resulted in anti-Chinese riots which resulted in several deaths, leading to the colonies’ first restrictions on immigration, targeting Chinese people.

The potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840s saw some 30,000 Irish migrants settle in Australia, and the push to develop Australia’s outback led to a government decision to all of 2000 cameleers from India and Afghanistan.

Some 50,000 people, mostly men from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, were brought to Australia in the late 1800s to work as indentured labourers in agriculture in Queensland.

Mostly brought against their will, under the so-called ‘black birding’ practises, many stayed on and built a community.

At federation in 1901, three million people in the six colonies became the nation of Australia, and the new country’s parliament defined it as a white man’s nation.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’ and was aimed at discouraging non-white migrants.

It included a notorious dictation test of 50 words in a European language – immigration officials could choose any language they pleased – which applicants had to pass to emigrate to Australia.

Japanese pearl divers and Malay and Filipino boat crew were exempt from the test. But there were thousands of Australians of Chinese, Syrian and Indian backgrounds who were forced to apply for documents to exempt them from the test if they travelled.

Immigration virtually ceased during WWI but during the 1920s more than 340,000 immigrants arrived – two-thirds of them assisted migrants from Britain, and small numbers of Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, saw unemployment rates skyrocket and attitudes towards immigrants turn hostile. Immigration declined sharply through the 1930s.

Ahead of the Second World War, as the political climate for Jews in Germany and Austria darkened, Australia agreed to accept 15,000 Jewish refugees from Europe.

Just 5,000 arrived in 1939 before Jews in Europe could no longer escape.

After the war, Australia appeared to take a more generous approach, agreeing to take refugees under the international Displaced Persons Scheme and admitting more than 170,000 Europeans by 1954. More than 17,000 of them were Jews.

In 1948, parliament legislated to create Australian citizenship – before that, all Australians were British subjects.

But Australia still actively sought British migrants in preference to other nationalities, with ventures like the assisted passage scheme known as the “ten pound pom” beginning in the late 1940s and running for almost 30 years.

But the post-war environment saw a significant shift in Australia’s attitude to migrants and set it on the path to multiculturalism. A national poll taken in 1943 found 40 per cent of Australians supported ‘unlimited migration’, driven in part by a critical labour shortage.

The country’s first-ever immigration minister Arthur Calwell promoted the idea that Australia needed to “populate or perish”.

Australia began accepting migrants from more than 30 European countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Spain and West Germany.

But the largest national groups of arrivals after the British were Italians and Greeks until the early 1970s.

A new family reunion policy saw some 30,000 arrivals from Eastern European nations join relatives in Australia.

More than 100,000 migrants from 30 different countries worked on the Snowy Hydro project, a hydroelectricity scheme that began in 1949 and completed in the 1970s.

The beginning of the end of the White Australia Policy came in 1958 with the ablolition of the infamous dictation test.

By 1960, Australia’s population was ten million and around nine per cent of the population were of non-British origin, mostly Italians, Germans, Dutch, Greeks and Poles.

Other restrictions on non-European migration were relaxed from 1966 and the number of arrivals started to increase accordingly.

Australia began to change rapidly. By 1971, one in three people living in Australia was a migrant or the child of a migrant.

In 1973, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam changed the law to allow all migrants regardless of race or ethnicity to apply for Australian citizenship after three years of residence.

His immigration minister Al Grassby declared the White Australia Policy dead.

In 1975, racial discrimination was made illegal.

And also in the early 1970s, new humanitarian or refugee intakes saw the settlement of Lebanese and Cypriot people.

This was followed by a significant wave of Indochinese arrivals displaced by the Vietnamese and Cambodian conflicts.

More than 2,000 Indochinese refugees landed in boats on Australian shores in the late 1970s, but the majority of the 80,000 Indochinese permanent migrants came by air after they were formally processed by Australian officials at refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand.

From the late 1990s, increasing numbers of asylum seekers fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Sri Lanka arrived in Australia by boat, mostly organised by people smugglers.

Australia’s government cracked down on what it called ‘unauthorised’ arrivals. Its offshore detention programs, designed to deter asylum seekers, has been criticised by the UN and human rights groups but the policy continues to have bipartisan support.

At the same time, Australia has open the door to migrants and ‘official’ refugees.

In each of the past handful of years, more than 190,000 new arrivals have settled in Australia, including between 12,000 and 18,000 refugees.

Temporary arrivals including international students and those on 457 work visas were around 400,000 in 2016-16.

There was also a special intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees announced in 2015 in response to the conflict there.

Since the 1980s, the focus of Australia’s immigration policy has been on selecting migrants who fit much-needed skills criteria, along with family visas.



Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist