Immigration history of Australia

Immigration history of Australia
History of Australia

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The immigration history of Australia began with the initial human migration to the continent around 50,000 years ago[1] when the ancestors of Australian Aborigines arrived on the continent via the islands of Maritime Southeast Asia and New Guinea.

From the early 17th century onwards, the continent experienced the first coastal landings and exploration by European explorers. Permanent European settlement began in 1788 with the establishment of the British Crown colony of New South Wales.


Original inhabitants

The history of Human habitation within the Australian continent begins with the first arrival of peoples ancestral to the present indigenous inhabitants. Whether these first migrations involved one or several successive waves and distinct peoples is still a matter for some academic debate, as is its timing. The minimum widely-accepted timeframe places this at 40,000 to 43,000 years Before Present (BP); the upper range supported by others is 60,000 years BP to 70,000 years BP.[2]

In any event, this migration was achieved during the closing stages of the Pleistocene epoch, when sea levels were typically much lower than they are today. Repeated episodes of extended glaciation resulted in decreases of sea levels by some 100–150 m. The continental coastline therefore extended much further out into the Timor Sea than it does today, and Australia and New Guinea formed a single landmass (known as Sahul), connected by an extensive land bridge across the Arafura Sea, Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait.

It is theorised that these original peoples first navigated the shorter distances from and between the Sunda Islands to reach Sahul; then via the land bridge to spread out through the continent. Archaeological evidence indicates human habitation at the upper Swan River, Western Australia by about 40,000 years ago; Tasmania (also at that time connected via a land bridge) was reached at least 30,000 years ago.

The ancestral Australian Aboriginal peoples were thus long established and continued to develop, diversify and settle through much of the continent. As the sea levels again rose at the terminus of the most recent glacial period some 10,000 years ago the Australian continent once more became a separated landmass. However, the newly-formed 150 km wide Torres Strait with its chain of islands still provided the means for cultural contact and trade between New Guinea and the northern Cape York Peninsula.

Several thousand years ago the Melanesian Torres Strait Islander peoples were established in the Torres Strait Islands, and commerce and contact was continued via this route although there is little evidence to suggest immediate influences extended much further south. A more sporadic contact along the northern Australian coast was maintained by seafarers across the Timor and Arafura Seas, with substantial evidence of Macassan contact with Australia in the centuries prior to European arrival, and also evidence of earlier contacts and exchanges by other groups. However, these exchanges do not appear to have involved any extended settlement or migrations of non-Aboriginal peoples to the region.[3]

18th and 19th centuries

Colonisation and settlement by Britain

After the loss of the United States, Britain needed a new penal colony for the relocation of convicts in its overcrowded prisons. In 1787 the First Fleet of 11 ships and about 1350 people under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip set sail for Australia. On 26 January 1788—(a date now celebrated as Australia Day, but regarded as "Invasion Day" by some Aboriginal people and supporters)—a landing was made at Sydney Cove. The new colony was formally proclaimed as the Colony of New South Wales on 7 February.

From about 1815 the colony began to grow rapidly as free settlers arrived from Britain and Ireland and new lands were opened up for farming. Despite the long and arduous sea voyage, settlers were attracted by the prospect of making a new life on virtually free Crown land. Many settlers occupied land without authority; they were known as squatters and became the basis of a powerful landowning class.

As a result of agitation by the free settlers, transportation of convicts to Sydney ended in 1840, although it continued to the smaller colonies of Van Diemen's Land (where settlement began in 1803) and Moreton Bay (founded 1824, and later renamed Queensland) for some years longer. The small settlement of Perth, founded in 1829 on the Swan River in Western Australia, failed to prosper and instead asked for convicts. In contrast, South Australia, with its capital Adelaide founded in 1836, was settled only by free settlers, and has no convict settlement history.

Gold rush era: arrival of other Europeans and Chinese

The discovery of gold, beginning in 1851 first near Bathurst in New South Wales and then in the newly formed colony of Victoria, transformed Australia economically, politically and demographically. The goldrushes occurred hard on the heels of a major worldwide economic depression. As a result, about two per cent of the population of the British Isles emigrated to New South Wales and Victoria during the 1850s[citation needed]. There were also a significant number of continental Europeans, North Americans and Chinese.

In 1851 the Australian population was 437,655, of which 77,345, or just under 18%, were Victorians. A decade later the Australian population had grown to 1,151,947 and the Victorian population had increased to 538,628; just under 47% of the Australian total and a sevenfold increase. The rapid growth was predominantly a result of the gold rushes.[4]

During the later half of the nineteenth century several colonies funded the immigration of skilled immigrants from Europe, starting with the assistance of German vintners to South Australia. The government found that if it wanted immigrants it had to subsidise migration; the great distance from Europe made Australia a more expensive and less attractive destination than Canada and the United States.

The number of immigrants needed during different stages of the economic cycle could be controlled by varying the subsidy. Before federation in 1901, assisted migrants received passage assistance from colonial government funds; the British government paid for the passage of convicts, paupers, the military and civil servants. Few immigrants received colonial government assistance before 1831.[5]

Annual average assisted immigrants to Australia[5]
Period Australia NSW Vic Qld SA Tas WA
1831–1860 18,268 5,355[6] 8,796[6] 479[6] 2,728 710 200
1861–1900 10,087 1,912 1,304 5,359 1,161 119 232

20th century

White Australia Policy

One of the motives for creating a federated Australia was the need for a common immigration policy. There was much resistance to Chinese immigration and the importing of indentured workers from New Caledonia to work in the Queensland sugar industry.

The White Australia Policy, the policy of excluding all non-European people from immigrating into Australia, was the official policy of all governments and all mainstream political parties in Australia from the 1890s to the 1950s, and elements of the policy survived until the 1970s. Although the expression 'White Australia Policy' was never in official use, it was common in political and public debate throughout the period.[7]

Postwar immigration

In 1954 the 50,000th Dutch migrant arrived; Maria Scholte is to the right of the picture

After World War II, Australia launched an immigration program whose goal was to increase the population of Australia or risk another invasion. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans immigrated to Australia with more than three million people immigrating from Europe during the late 1940s till the 1960s.

The Australian government assisting many of the refugees help them find work due to an expanding economy and major infrastructure projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme being the most famous. This growth of immigration greatly changed the national image of the Australian way of life, which before the war had been dominated by the Caucasian race. Immigration was still uptight about letting in non-Europeans into the country due to the White Australia Policy it was gradually being tolerant into was being let in inside Australian borders.

During the 1970s and 1980s around 120,000 southern Asian refugees resettled in Australia. During that twenty years, Australia first began to adopt a policy of what Minister of Immigration Al Grassby termed "multiculturalism". The rapid increase of Asian immigrants was also due to the abolition of the White Australia Policy in 1972, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The development of Australia's multicultural policy was heavily influenced by the Galbally Report of 1978, which addressed issues with living in and planning for a multicultural Australian society.

World unrest - a source of migrants

The history of Australia migration is closely linked to the world events.

  • The fall of Saigon in 1975 signaled the start of migration waves from Indo-China unto to the Western World, including Australia.
  • East Timor - The fall of Dili to Indonesian's troops in 1975 forced many East-Timor residents to take refuge in Australia. Amongst them are the Hakka speaking Chinese traders.
  • Dictatorships in South America - Political dissidents from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay fled left wing military communist regimes during the 1970s with a sizable percentage of political refugees sought asylum in Australia.
  • Tiananmen Square massacre - Prime Minister Bob Hawke made a very emotional speech after the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. He granted permanent residency to many Chinese students in Australia.
  • After the Jakarta riots of May 1998 migrants from Jakarta trickled in to major cities in Australia. The impact can be observed in the increase of number of Indonesian restaurants, groceries stores, print publications and churches.[citation needed]

The many events of the century (such as the communism outbreak) caused many people to come to Australia for work or refuge. Australia's diversity really flourished in the 20th century.

Opposition to immigration

A predominantl cic sty nation on the periphery of Asia, Australia has long feared being demographically overwhelmed by the heavily-populated Asian countries to its north. Following the attacks on Darwin and the associated fear of Imperial Japanese invasion in WWII, Minister of Immigration Arthur Calwell stated in 1947: "We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us." This concern about Australia's demographic vulnerability was a driving force behind the country's massive post-war program of European immigration. However, by the late 1970s, the abolition of the so-called 'White Australia Policy' had led to a significant increase in immigration from Asian and other non-European countries.

In March 1984, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, one of Australia's most significant historians, made a speech criticizing what he saw as the disproportionately high levels of Asian immigration to Australia. Blainey's remarks touched off a flood of debate and controversy about immigration and multiculturalism, known as the 'Blainey debate'. In 1984, he wrote a book outlining his ideas on immigration and multiculturalism titled All for Australia. Blainey remained a persistent critic of multiculturalism throughout the 1980s, claiming multiculturalism was a "sham", "anti-British" and threatened to transform Australia into a "cluster of tribes".

Blainey's views were echoed by some politicians. In August 1988, John Howard, then opposition leader, launched the One Australia policy, stating that he believed the rate of Asian immigration into Australia should be slowed down for the sake of social cohesion. He stated: "I do believe that if it is - in the eyes of some in the community - that it's too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater."

In the 1996 election Pauline Hanson was elected to the federal seat of Oxley. In her maiden speech to the House of Representatives, which instantly made headlines and television news bulletins across Australia, she expressed her concern that Australia "was in danger of being swamped by Asians". This message exposed a population deeply divided on the issue of immigration.

Hanson went on to form the One Nation Party, which subsequently won nearly one quarter of the vote in Queensland state elections. The name "One Nation" was meant to signify national unity, in contrast to what Hanson claimed to see as an increasing division in Australian society caused by government policies favouring migrants (multiculturalism) and indigenous Australians. Political ineptitude and infighting led to One Nation's demise, but the issue of immigration remains highly sensitive in Australia.

Prime Minister John Howard's campaigning on issues of 'border protection' at the 2001 federal election were widely seen as a successful effort to win One Nation voters back to the Liberal and National parties.

Asylum seeking controversies

In the early 1990s Australian immigration legislation was changed dramatically, introducing the concept of mandatory detention of unauthorized arrivals, who were popularly referred to as boat people. With a sharp rise in unauthorized boat arrivals in the late 1990s, mostly from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the Howard government enforced the mandatory detention policy created by the previous Paul Keating government. This came to international attention during the Tampa affair of 2001.

During the 2001 election campaign, immigration and border protection became the hot issue, as a result of incidents such as the Tampa affair, the Children overboard affair, and the sinking of the SIEV-X. This was a major factor contributing to the victory of the Coalition, deemed impossible only a few months earlier, and also marked the beginning of the controversial Pacific Solution.

After the election, the government continued with its hard line on unauthorized arrivals of asylum seekers. Legislation was developed to excise certain islands from Australia’s migration zone meaning that if asylum seekers landed on an excised island, Australia was not required to provide access to the Australian courts or permanent settlement. Australia still adheres to its international obligations by considering such refugee applications offshore and providing temporary protection visas to those in genuine need of protection.

By 2004, the number of unauthorized boat arrivals had been reduced dramatically. The government argued that this was the result of its strong policy towards asylum seekers. Others argued that the decrease was the result of global factors, such as changing circumstances in the primary source nations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Actual immigration patterns under the Howard Government 1996-2007

Australia accepted 87,000 immigrants in 1994-95,[8] the last financial year before the Howard Government was elected.[9] Planned immigrant intake was reduced to 68,000 following the election of John Howard in 1996.[10][11]

In 2004-05, Australia accepted 123,000 new settlers,[12] a 40 per cent increase over the past 10 years. The largest number of immigrants (40,000 in 2004/05) moved to Sydney. The majority of immigrants came from Asia, led by China and India. There was also significant growth in student numbers from Asia, and continued high numbers of tourists from Asia.[9]

Planned immigrant intake in 2005/06 had more than doubled compared with the intake of 1996.[10]

As at 2007 immigration accounted just over half the overall growth in Australia's population. In NSW and South Australia about three-quarters of the population growth could be attributed to immigration.[10]

The planned intake for 2007/08 was almost 153,000[13] - plus 13,000 under the humanitarian program and in addition 24,000 New Zealanders were expected to migrate under specific trans-Tasman agreement.[10]

Since the 1988 Fitzgerald Inquiry, the quota for skilled and business migrants has risen compared with the quota for family reunions. Only refugees are given any level of support on their arrival in Australia, and this is limited to English language lessons.[14]

Immigration concerns in the early 21st century

In December 2006, in the town of Tamworth, New South Wales, the Regional Council voted 6 to 3 against an offer from the Federal Government to take part in a one-year trial rural refugee resettlement program; the majority of these refugees would be Sudanese escaping civil war in their homeland. The mayor of Tamworth, Cr James Treloar, argued that the program under which the refugees would be resettled "has faults".[15] This decision resulted in national and international media attention on the city. The decision to reject the refugees was reversed one month later, and Tamworth will now take part in the resettling program.[16]

In October 2007, the Australian government announced a ban on refugees from Africa, which would be reviewed in mid-2008. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews stated that refugees from Sudan and Darfur were having problems integrating and that refugees from Burma and Afghanistan should take priority.[17] However, after the Rudd Labor government was elected on the 25 November 2007, Australia's stance on keeping refugees off shore changed and on 8 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that all refugees kept on Nauru would be moved to Australia. This signalled the end of the Pacific solution.

See also


  1. ^ Smith, Debra (2007-05-09). "Out of Africa - Aboriginal origins uncovered". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-05. "Aboriginal Australians are descended from the same small group of people who left Africa about 70,000 years ago and colonised the rest of the world, a large genetic study shows. After arriving in Australia and New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, the settlers evolved in relative isolation, developing unique genetic characteristics and technology." 
  2. ^ "Australia colonized earlier than previously thought?"., Paola Arosio & Diego Meozzi. 24 July 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-02.  - reporting on news in The West Australian (19 July 2003)
  3. ^ Wade, Nicholas (8 May 2007). "From DNA Analysis, Clues to a Single Australian Migration". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-05. "Geneticists re-examining the first settlement of Australia and Papua-New Guinea by modern humans have concluded that the two islands were reached some 50,000 years ago by a single group of people who remained in substantial or total isolation until recent times." 
  4. ^ Caldwell, J. C. (1987). "Chapter 2: Population". In Wray Vamplew (ed.). Australians: Historical Statistics. Broadway, New South Wales, Australia: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates. pp. 23 and 26. ISBN 0-949288-29-2. 
  5. ^ a b Price, Charles (1987). "Chapter 1: Immigration and Ethnic Origin". In Wray Vamplew (ed.). Australians: Historical Statistics. Broadway, New South Wales, Australia: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates. pp. 2–22. ISBN 0-949288-29-2. 
  6. ^ a b c New South Wales assisted immigrant figures included immigrants for what became Victoria until 1850 and for what became Queensland until 1859.
  7. ^ The History of Immigration of Australia of the Last Century Book
  8. ^ APMRN - Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific - Australia
  9. ^ a b Sheehan, Paul (2 January 2006). "Little squares that define the nation". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  10. ^ a b c d Gittins, Ross (13 June 2007). "Back-scratching at a national level". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-04. 
  11. ^ Migration News - Migration Dialogue
  12. ^ "Immigration numbers over 123,000". The Age (Melbourne). 31 December 2005. 
  13. ^ General Skilled Migration - Chapter Four
  14. ^ url=
  15. ^ You're not welcome, town tells refugees Sydney Morning Herald
  16. ^ Tamworth rethinks refugee settlement scheme, ABC News Online
  17. ^ BBC News - Australia in Africa refugee ban

Further reading

  • Betts, Katharine. Ideology and Immigration: Australia 1976 to 1987 (1997)
  • Burnley, I.H. The Impact of Immigration in Australia: A Demographic Approach (2001)
  • Foster, William, et al. Immigration and Australia: Myths and Realities (1998)
  • Jupp, James. From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Jupp, James. The English in Australia (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Jupp, James. The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origins (2002)
  • Lack, John and Templeton, Jacqueline - editors - (1988) Sources of Australian immigration history Parkville, Vic: History Dept., University of Melbourne, Melbourne University history monographs ; 0002. ISBN 0868396796 (set)
  • Markus, Andrew, James Jupp and Peter McDonald, eds. Australia's Immigration Revolution (2010) excerpt and text search
  • O'Farrell, Patrick. The Irish in Australia: 1798 to the Present Day (3rd ed. Cork University Press, 2001)
  • Wells, Andrew, and Theresa Martinez, eds. Australia's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook (ABC-CLIO, 2004)

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