A brief history of immigration to Australia

Australia has a higher proportion of people born overseas (26%) than other high-immigration nations, including New Zealand (23%), Canada (22%), the United States (14%), and the United Kingdom (13%)

Since 1945, when Australia’s immigration department was established, seven million permanent migrants have settled in Australia.

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 (five 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.

Multiculturalism has been official Australian policy since the early 1970s and it enjoys broad support. Over 80 per cent of people in Australia say multiculturalism has been good for the country, according to the past four years of the Mapping Social Cohesion survey conducted by Monash University.

Most of the first modern migrants to Australia were involuntary arrivals: British convicts 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.

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 bring in 2000 cameleers mainly from India and Afghanistan. 

Between 1851 and 1860, more than 600,000 migrants arrived: most were from the UK but 10 per cent came from elsewhere in Europe and 7 per cent from China.

Immigration virtually ceased during the first world war. 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.

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" (the price of the ticket) kicking off in the late 1940s and running almost 25 years.

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 Brits were the 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.

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. In 2017 the Turnbull government moved to restrict the skilled visa system and tighten requirements for citizenship, including reinstating a tough English-language test. But those changes have been put on ice after it became clear they did not have support in the Senate, leading to a surge in citizenship applications.

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