(June 2000) The issue of immigration is red hot in Australia these days.

Tired of the boatloads of asylum-seekers from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia is cracking down on illegal immigrants and making it more difficult for them to apply for refugee status.

At the same time, the government intends to boost its intake of legal migrants next year as the country increasingly tries to woo skilled workers.

These developments have heightened the public debate around immigration — a touchy issue in many wealthy, industrialized nations that face similar demographic trends. In many cases, populations are aging as people live longer and have fewer babies. In Australia and other developed countries, this is resulting in a growth in the proportion of older, retired people and a decrease in the percentage of younger, working-age adults.

In the next 50 years, the populations of more than a quarter of the developed countries are projected to become smaller and older as a result of low birth rates and increased longevity, according to new figures from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). Without immigration, therefore, population decline in these countries is inevitable.

The median age of the Australian population (the age at which half the population is older and half younger) was 35 years in June 1999, having risen by almost six years over the last 20 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The percentage of people 65 or older has grown from 8 percent in the 1950s to 12 percent today, while birth rates have fallen from more than three children per woman to less than two children.

This news has forced the Australian government to act. The government of Prime Minister John Howard announced on April 4 that Australia’s immigration program was to be increased from 70,000 to 76,000 places next year, with an increasing emphasis on skilled workers.

The increase, the largest since 1996, is to include roughly 5,000 new places for skilled migrants who have strong English language skills and qualifications in such high-demand occupations as information technology and accounting. Candidates willing to live in places other than the highly populated southern cities of Sydney and Melbourne will be accorded greater preference.

The shift toward skilled migrants “will deliver additional economic, budgetary, and employment benefits, particularly given the skill shortages that have emerged in the Australian economy,” said Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as he announced the new program. He did note, however, that the increase would have only marginal impact on the projected aging of Australia’s population.

Even as the government tries to attract young workers, critics complain that Australia appears to be turning its back on immigrants in need.

Under the new migration program, the current humanitarian allocation of 12,000 places remains the same. More important, however, Australia has recently instituted greater restrictions for persons applying for refugee status. Under new legislation, any person who has the right to remain for more than seven days in another country would not be eligible for refugee status in Australia.

The legislation has provoked fierce opposition from human rights, church, and refugee organizations; these groups call the law a breach of Australia’s international obligation to refugees.

At the same time, the continued arrival of illegal immigrants has sparked a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment across the country. The influx began in mid-1999 and peaked in November 1999, and estimated arrivals during this period range from 1,200 to 1,700. Many of these people are Iraqis and Afghans, and they come via India, Indonesia, and other points.

Yvette Collymore is a senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.