(June 2001) Immigration since World War II has transformed Australian society and population. Many residents of Australia are immigrants or are the children of immigrants. More than one-fifth of Australians were born overseas (23 percent), compared with 10 percent in the United States and 17 percent in Canada. In addition, 19 percent of those born in Australia have at least one parent who was born overseas. Between 1945 and 2000, most of Australia’s population increase (59 percent of the increase from 7.4 million to 19.1 million) has come from immigration. Australia is likely to become increasingly diverse, with immigrants continuing to influence Australia’s society, economy, and settlement patterns.

Asia Surpasses Europe as the Largest Source of Immigrants to Australia

The post-World War II period stands out as an exceptional era in Australia’s immigration history because of a major influx of immigrants from outside the United Kingdom and Ireland. For much of the post-World War II period, the UK and Ireland have been the major source of immigrants even while there was a series of successive waves of immigrants from various non-English speaking regions. The immediate post-war period saw the arrival of substantial numbers of displaced persons from Eastern Europe. This was followed by waves from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East. In the late 1970s, substantial flows from Asia commenced and still continue. Since the late 1980s, Asia has been a more important origin of migrants than Europe. In the 1990s, the United Kingdom lost its place as the largest single source of immigrants.

These patterns reflect some significant shifts in immigration policy over the last half-century. In the aftermath of World War II, significant labor shortages arose in the newly expanding manufacturing sector as well as in traditional areas like agriculture. When this demand for labor could not be met from traditional sources, the government assisted more than 300,000 displaced persons from Eastern Europe to settle in Australia and fill vacant jobs. This policy broke the previous almost exclusive reliance on immigrants from the UK-Ireland. The success of the displaced-persons policy led to an extension of the immigration program to other parts of Europe.

The 1970s saw several major shifts in the immigration policy. First, Australia began to experience substantial levels of unemployment with structural change in the economy, the movement of manufacturing jobs away from Australia, and the entry of the baby-boom cohorts into the labor force. Immigration policy shifted from an emphasis on the recruitment of semi-skilled and skilled foreign workers for manufacturing to a more complex program with four main components:

  • Economic migration. Attraction of people with skills in demand in Australia.
  • Family migration. Relatives of Australian residents. The specific regulations of this part of the program have changed over the subsequent years.
  • Refugee and humanitarian migration.
  • Special categories. The largest is New Zealanders who can move more or less freely across the Tasman Sea.

The government introduced a points system to assess applicants for economic migration. In the 1980s a system was introduced whereby each year the government sets the numbers of immigrants to be allowed into the country. Over the years, the numbers and balance of the four categories has shifted with changes in government policy, the economy, and the global situation.

The second major policy change in the 1970s was the removal of the final vestiges of the “White Australia policy” which was one of the first initiatives of Australia’s first national government in 1901. This policy prevented non-Europeans from immigrating to Australia. With its removal, Asians began to compete equally for places in the immigration program. The entry of refugees from Indo-China was the first wave of a continuing influx from the region.

Trends Point to Increasing Diversity in Australia’s Population

Growing diversity among immigrants has made Australia increasingly multicultural. In 1947, 98 percent of the Australian population were born either in Australia or in another English speaking nation. By 1996, this figure had dropped to 86 percent.

C.A. Price has estimated the “ethnic strength” of the main groups in the Australian population. (Ethnic strength is derived by adding fractions of ancestry for generations.) A distinctive feature of post-World War II immigration to Australia is that it has not been dominated by a single birthplace or ethno-linguistic group. The result is a highly diverse population. According to the 1996 census, there were 53 birthplace groups with 10,000 or more residents in Australia, and 111 groups with 1,000 or more residents. Table 1 shows the largest 15 birthplace groups in Australia in 1947, 1971, and 1996. This indicates the increased importance of continental European groups in the first half of the post-World War II period and of Asian groups in the second.

Table 1
Australia’s 15 Largest Birthplace Groups, 1947, 1971, and 1996

1947 1971 1996
Birthplace Number Birthplace Number Birthplace Number
Australia 6,835,17 Australia 10,176,320 Australia 13,227,776
UK and Ireland 541,267 UK and Ireland 1,088,210 United Kingdom 1,124,031
New Zealand 43,610 Italy 289,476 New Zealand 291,388
Italy 33,632 Greece 160,200 Italy 238,426
Germany 14,567 Yugoslavia 129,816 Viet Nam 151,053
Greece 12,291 Germany 110,811 Greece 126,520
India 8,160 Netherlands 99,295 China 111,009
Poland 6,573 New Zealand 80,466 Germany 110,331
China 6,404 Poland 59,700 Philippines 92,949
USA 6,232 Malta 53,618 Netherlands 87,898
South Africa 5,866 USA 30,035 India 77,551
Yugoslavia 5,866 India 29,211 Malaysia 76,255
Ukraine 4,976 Hungary 29,160 Lebanon 70,224
Austria 4,219 Egypt 28,226 Hong Kong 68,430
Canada 4,061 Lebanon 24,218 Poland 65,113

Source: Australian censuses of 1947, 1971, and 1996.

Australian policies toward the settlement of immigrants have also undergone a substantial change since World War II. In the early post-war decades the official policy regarding settlement of immigrants was assimilation. In the 1970s, however, a new policy of multiculturalism emerged. This policy encouraged immigrants to retain their distinctive cultures while becoming part of broader Australian society. A number of mechanisms were put in place to ensure cultural maintenance such as the introduction of multicultural television and radio networks funded by the federal government.

Growth in Both Short and Long-Term Movement To and From Australia

For almost the entire post-World War II period there has been bipartisan agreement in Australia that permanent settlement of a significant number of overseas immigrants is desirable. Accordingly, each post-war government has had an active immigration program while strongly opposing non-permanent labor migration encouraged by some other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations during the 1950s and 1960s. The policy focus has changed. In response to major changes in the Australian economy — including internationalization of labor markets and globalization forces — there has been an increase in the entry of persons with the right to work in Australia on a nonpermanent basis. Over recent decades, there has been substantial growth of both short and long-term movement to and from Australia while permanent movement has remained stable.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs categorizes arrivals to Australia into three separate categories as it does departures from Australia:

  • Permanent residents: Persons migrating to Australia and residents departing permanently.
  • Long-Term Movement: Visitors arriving and residents departing temporarily with the intention to stay in Australia or abroad for 12 months or more, and the departure of visitors and the return of residents who stayed in Australia or abroad for 12 months or more.
  • Short-Term Movement: Travelers whose intended or actual stay in Australia or abroad is less than 12 months.

While Australia is an immigration country, it also has a significant and increasing population outflow. There has long been an outflow of immigrants: an estimated one-fifth of persons settling in Australia as immigrants eventually leave the country — most returning to their home country. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the outflow of the Australia-born and naturalized citizens. These emigrants tend to have a higher-level occupational profile than the corresponding inflow immigrants — which has led to increasing “brain drain” concerns.

Immigrants Tend to Opt for Urban Areas

Australian immigrants tend to settle in different places than the nonimmigrant population. They are more concentrated in urban areas where 80 percent of them lived in 1996, compared with 58 percent of the Australia-born. Moreover, they are especially concentrated in Sydney, which has 18 percent of the Australia-born but 32 percent of the overseas-born and 38 percent of those who had been in Australia for less than five years. They are also more concentrated in some states (New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia) than others.

There is considerable variation between different birthplace groups in their propensity to cluster together. For example, in the early post-war migrations, Italians and Greeks tended to cluster, especially in inner suburban areas of major cities. More recently, Indo-Chinese groups have shown a strong tendency to cluster while other Asian groups like Filipinos are relatively dispersed. There is considerable debate about this issue with some maintaining that such clustering assists newly arrived immigrants to adjust to the Australian society and economy since earlier migrants can assist them to get work and housing and otherwise adjust to the new environment. Others argue that such concentration hinders adjustment to Australia and fosters the development of separateness.

Undocumented Immigrants

Australia’s status as an island continent has protected it somewhat from large influxes of undocumented immigrants. However, the numbers arriving by boat — especially on Australia’s northern shores — have accelerated in recent years.

Between 1989 and 1994, the annual number of people on boats arriving secretly in Australia and detected by authorities ranged from 78 to 224. Between 1995 and 2000, this range was from 157 to 4,174 arrivals per year. In the past decade, the largest annual number of undocumented immigrants arriving by boat was documented in the fiscal year 1999-2000. These groups tend to be placed in detention centers until their claims for refugee status are processed.

Other types of undocumented migrants in Australia include those who have entered Australia legally and overstayed the period of their visas. In recent years, their numbers have been relatively stable at around 50,000. Additionally, there are those who arrive in Australian airports without documentation who are returned to their origin unless they can make a substantial claim for asylum.

Graeme Hugo is professor of geography and director of the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS, University of Adelaide, Australia.


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