Migration in Australia

Information courtesy of the NSW Migration Heritage Centre

In 1788, when European settlement began, Australia’s Aboriginal population was about 400,000. Today, more than 23 million people live here. Migration has been the main driver for this change.

The first migrants were decidedly involuntary, the convicts transported from Britain, Ireland and, to a lesser degree, other British colonies. From the 1830s they were joined by small numbers of voluntary migrants, again mainly from Britain and Ireland.

Once gold was discovered, the nature of Australian migration changed completely and people arrived in large numbers and from more varied backgrounds.

By Federation in 1901, the population was close to four million, with one in four born overseas.

The infamous ‘White Australia’ policy: keeping Australia British

When Federation occurred, the Commonwealth took over the recruiting and selection of migrants, offering assisted passages mainly to the British and Irish.

The first legislation passed by the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, which is often referred to as the ‘White Australia' policy. It also passed the Pacific Islands Labourers Act to prohibit their employment as contract labourers and to deport those already here.

In 1914, with the outbreak of WWI, migration almost stopped and some migrants already living here, from certain countries, were classed as ‘enemy aliens’. Those born in Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and Turkey were either interned or had restrictions placed on their daily lives.

At the end of the war, the assisted migration schemes recommenced. The British Government offered ex-servicemen free passage and 17,000 arrived in Australia between 1919 and 1922.

Church and community organisations such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army sponsored migrants. Small numbers also arrived independently and by the 1930s, Jewish settlers began arriving in large numbers, many of them refugees from Hitler’s Europe.

The 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression put an end to sponsored migration and it was not until the end of WWII that it was resumed.

Just as in WWI, the outbreak of WWII saw previously acceptable migrants — Germans, Italians, Japanese and Hungarians – classed ‘enemy aliens’ and interned or kept under surveillance.

‘Populate or perish’: post war migration

When WWII ended, the government took an entirely new approach to migration. The near invasion of Australia by the Japanese caused Prime Minister Ben Chifley to rethink ideal population numbers and state, 'We must populate Australia as rapidly as we can before someone else decides to populate it for us'.

In 1945, the Department of Immigration was established and resolved that Australia needed a population growth of 2 per cent a year. At that time, some 11 million people had survived the Nazi labour and concentration camps and many Poles, Yugoslavs, Latvians, Ukrainians and Hungarians, were unable to return home. Australia agreed to accept a minimum of 12,000 of these refugees a year.

On November 28, 1947, the first Displaced Persons being 844 young Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians arrived in Melbourne and were transferred to Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, they agreed to work for the government for two years.

During the seven years this scheme operated, nearly 171,000 arrived. When this source came to an end, the Australian Government negotiated a series of migration agreements with other countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Belgium, West Germany, Greece, Spain, the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Most migrants arrived by ship, disembarking in major cities such as Melbourne and Sydney. From there they were immediately taken to migration hostels in rural areas, often in former military barracks. The intention was that migrants only stay four to six weeks until they could be resettled near their workplace. At times, however, work was difficult to find and some stayed for months if not years.

All assisted migrants aged over 16 had to work. Regardless of qualifications men were classified as labourers and women as domestics.

From a ‘White Australia’ to multiculturalism

From the 1950s, Australia began to relax its ‘White Australia’ policy. In 1956 non-European residents were allowed to apply for citizenship and in 1967, Australia entered into its first migration agreement with a non-European country.

In 1972 the first Labor government for 24 years radically changed official policy. Migrants were to be chosen according to personal and social attributes and occupational group rather than country of origin.

In 1973, Minister for Immigration Al Grassby declared Australia a ‘multicultural’ society. The Australian Citizenship Act of that year declared that all migrants were to be accorded equal treatment.

In 1975 the first of the ‘boat people’ arrived in Darwin. More than 25,000 arrived in the next 30 years, with all illegal migrants being subject to compulsory internment while their claims of refugee status are assessed.

In 1988 the Fitzgerald Inquiry led to further changes in migration with a move away from ‘family reunion’ towards an emphasis on skilled and business categories. The assisted passage scheme had ended in 1981 and only refugees are given any level of support on their arrival in Australia.

In 1996, for the first time in Australia’s migration history, the number of British migrants arriving fell to second place behind New Zealand.

Renewed prosperity in Europe has also meant that, where once Italians and Greeks made up the majority of non-British new arrivals, today, after New Zealand, it is people from China, South Africa and India. Conflicts overseas have also meant that Australia is now taking refugees from countries previously unrepresented.