Background InformationCapital: Canberra
Official language:
7 759 538.2 km2
Population (Dec. 2008):
21 644 000
Population Density (Dec. 2008):
2.8 inhabitants per km2
Population Growth Rate (2008):
1.9 %
Labour Force Participation Rate (Aug. 2009):
Foreign-Born as Percentage of Total Population
(June 2008):
Unemployment rate (Aug. 2009):
Religion (2006):
Percent Catholic 25.8, Protestant 18.7,
Other Christian 19.4, Buddhist 2.1, Muslim 1.7, Other 2.3, No Religion 18.7, No Answer 11.2

12 as a result of waves of immigration and their subsequent fertility.

Historical Development of Immigration Policy

In examining Australian immigration, the Second World War is a clear watershed. The arrival of the first European settlers in 1788, involving mostly transported convicts, was the beginning of more than a hundred years in which the separate colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia had their own immigration policies. While there was steady growth in immigration over the period leading to the federation of Australia in 1901, there were spikes associated with mining rushes and major extensions of the agricultural frontier. The flow was overwhelmingly from Britain, although there was a major influx of Chinese associated with the mining boom in the 1870s and 1880s. The federation saw immigration policy being taken over by the new Commonwealth government and one of its first acts was to declare the White Australia Policy, which limited immigration to Europeans, especially those from the British Isles. However, there were significant waves of migrants from Germany (in the 1840s and 1850s) and Italians (especially in the early twentieth century). The level of immigration ebbed and flowed with the economy, reaching high levels in the 1920s and then plummeting during the Great Depression of the 1930s, even recording net emigration in some years.

After World War II the level of immigration to Australia reached a new high level, which has been maintained over most of the subsequent six decades with rises and falls associated with economic fluctuations and shifts in immigration policy. However, the significant shift in the scale of immigration is only one element in the transformation of immigration to Australia in the post-war period.

Permanent Migration Program

(b) Family migrants who are related to earlier generations of migrants.
(c) Refugee-humanitarian migrants who either are recognised under the UNHCR 1952 Convention or are accepted on other humanitarian grounds.
(d) Others, mainly New Zealanders who have more or less free access to settle in Australia.

Each year the federal government carries out consultations with a range of stakeholders in Australia to fix a quota on each of the four categories of migrants.

Skilled migration
The Skilled/Labour Migration part of the immigration program is designed to target skills which will contribute to the Australian economy. A points assessment system has been put in place whereby potential economic/skill settlers are assigned points associated with education/training, work experience, age, English language ability and other labour market attributes. A moving cut-off level (depending on the points scores of migrants in a given year) is recognised above which settlers are accepted. The skill stream in the program comprises several visa categories and has become of increased significance in recent years, as governments have sought to place a stronger emphasis on migration contributing to national economic growth. It now accounts for around 70 percent of the migration program, more than double its share in the early 1990s. Moreover, in 2008-09 the quota of 190 000 was the highest ever, although acknowledgement of the effects of the global financial crisis saw it reduced by 30 000 for 2009-10.

Regional migration
In recent years a number of new visa categories have been introduced under the State Specific and Regional Migration Scheme4:

  • The Australian states and territories are becoming increasingly involved in immigration and recruitment ofimmigrants, which, historically, has been almost exclusively the responsibility of the national government.
  • Many of the SSRM migrants enter Australia as temporary residents. Then, after a period (around 2 years) in which they demonstrate that they have successfully adjusted to the labour market and Australia more generally, they are granted permanent residence.

Family migration
The refugee-humanitarian program
Trans-Tasman migration
Despite a number of changes over the years, there has been more or less unrestricted movement of Australians and New Zealanders across the Tasman Sea separating the two countries.5 New Zealanders are granted a Special Category Visa upon arrival and this remains valid as long as they wish to stay in Australia. The number of New Zealanders in Australia was 521 233 in mid 2008, an increase of 3.3 percent over the previous year.6

The permanent migration figures, however, are only the tip of the iceberg of Trans-Tasman movement. In the 2007-08 financial year there were a total of 1 392 136 movements of New Zealand citizens to Australia, an increase of 3.2 percent over the previous year.  There were nearly as many movements of New Zealand citizens in the other direction (1 369 837), an increase of 4.2 percent over the previous year. A distinctive feature of New Zealander movement to Australia is a high level of temporary work-related migration and significant return migration among many long-term settlers.7 Another element that differentiates New Zealand migration to Australia from that originating from other countries is that, once it is controlled for age, there is little difference between the New Zealand citizen population in Australia and the Australia-born.8 The New Zealand-born in Australia have a higher level of workforce participation (78.5 percent) compared with the Australia-born (68.9 percent) and a similar unemployment rate (4.8 percent).9 Indeed, international migration between Australia and New Zealand has more similarities with internal migration patterns within Australia10 than it does with other international migration flows. This reflects the fact that, despite Australia and New Zealand being separate nation states, they largely form a single labour market.

Temporary Migration

Australia has long had an emphasis on attracting permanent11 However, the 457 Program has come under intense scrutiny in recent times, with some employers being accused of misusing the scheme to displace Australian workers, especially in some regional areas. The number of new 457s continued to increase rapidly so that in 2007-08, some

61 390 new applications were lodged and in mid-2008 there were 134 238 people in the 457 designation working in Australia. The onset of the global financial crisis saw the number of new applications fall to 54 810 in 2008-09.The largest, and most rapidly increasing, inflow of temporary migrants with the right to work in Australia has been of foreign students. In mid-2008 there were 317 897 foreign students resident in Australia, with 80.2 percent being from Asia. This inflow brought an estimated A$15.5 billion into Australia in 2008, which makes it the third largest export earner after mining and tourism. Australia, with around a fifth of its university population made up of foreign students, has one of the highest such proportions for any country.  Students can work for up to 20 hours during term time and full time during breaks.  They can and do often apply for permanent residence after completion of their studies.

The Working Holiday Maker (WHM) program has also reached record levels, with 154 148 arrivals in 2007-08, doubling in the last 10 years and increasing by 15 percent over the previous year. The WHM program is a reciprocal one that allows young people (aged 18-30 years) from 19 nations to have working holidays in Australia for periods of up to a year. The fact that WHMs fill some important niches in the labour market, such as in harvesting, tourist activity and restaurants, has been recognised by recent legislation allowing WHMs to extend their stay in Australia if they work in particular areas of labour shortage.

A distinctive feature of the temporary migration program is that it is restricted to skilled workers. However, an initiative of the new Labour government12 was the announcement in 2008 of a new visa which is a pilot project intended to run over three years and allow 2 500 seasonal workers from Kiribati, Papua-New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu to work in the horticultural industry in regional Australia for up to seven months each year. This follows considerable pressure from regional horticultural employers, and from Pacific countries to provide employment for their burgeoning workforce-age populations.13

Irregular Migration

Australia does not share any land borders with other countries; its isolated island geography has been a major factor in the low levels of irregular migration that it experiences. Figure 2 shows the numbers of unauthorised arrivals in Australia over recent years. In recent years most of the boat arrivals have come from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. There is a well-organised route with migrants flying in to Malaysia and travelling by land and sea through Indonesia to Australia. The Australian government is making intensive efforts to collaborate with Indonesia and Malaysia to reduce this flow.

A large number of irregular migrants in Australia is attributed to the persons who enter on valid visas and then subsequently overstay. All foreigners visiting Australia must hold a valid visa and are registered on entry and exit, so counting of overstayers is possible. It is estimated that in mid-2008 there were 48 500 overstayers in Australia, with around 10 percent of those being from China.14
While most unauthorised arrivals apply for asylum after entry, the majority of overstayers avoid contact with immigration authorities.


15 of Australian residents
(76 923) of whom 50.8 percent were born in Australia. The numbers of Australia-born leaving permanently has more than doubled: from 17 264 in 1997-98 to 39 144 in 2007-08. Over the same time period the number of resident long-term departures increased from 79 422 to 102 066. The rate of return migration of former settlers varies considerably among particular birthplace categories16 with especially high rates among those born in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Japan and the USA.

The destinations of recent permanent departures are depicted in Figure 5 and it is apparent that the dominant destinations are other developed nations, including the following:

  • The largest flow is to neighbouring New Zealand, with which Australia has a special arrangement that allows more or less free mobility.
  • The second largest flow is to the United Kingdom, which partly reflects longstanding linkages having origins in colonial times as well as the new role of London as a global city attracting highly skilled Australians.
  • The third largest flow is to the United States, and this is the fastest-growing emigrant flow associated with the central role of the destination in the global economy, especially the cities of New York and Los Angeles.
  • There is a substantial flow to Asia, primarily directed toward the high-income rapid growth city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore but increasingly, too, to rapidly growing China. The Asian movement is almost totally to the megacities of the region.

An Increasingly Diverse Population

  • Some 23.9 percent of the total population were born outside of Australia, 14.8 percent in countries where English is not the main language. The comparative figures for 1947 were 9.8 percent and 2.0 percent.
  • Over a fifth of the overseas-born (21.5 percent) speak a language other than English at home.
  • 26.4 percent of the Australia-born population have at least one overseas-born parent.
  • In 2006 there were 12 birthplace groups with more than 100 000 persons living in Australia and 61 birthplace groups with more than 10 000 Australian residents.

Figure 6 depicts the distribution of the countries of origin of recent permanent settlers to Australia. It shows that, while the traditional origin countries of the United Kingdom and New Zealand remain important, there is a wide dispersion in evidence. Moreover, it indicates the significance of Asia, especially India and China.

Citizenship and naturalisation

The Australian Citizenship Act of 1948 stipulated that those born in Australia who acquired another nationality forfeited their Australian citizenship. With increasing Australian emigration there was considerable opposition to this, culminating in 2001 in a Senate Inquiry and a subsequent amendment to the Act in 2002, which made dual citizenship possible for Australians.

A record number of citizenships were approved in 2006-07 (136 256) ahead of some changes in the Citizenship Act in 2007. These changes involved an increase in the residence requirement and the introduction of a citizenship test. The latter was somewhat controversial but in its initial year 95 percent of people who sat the test passed it.

18 laid down the guiding principles of Australian multiculturalism which largely remain in place, although the extent to which they have been heeded has varied with successive Australian governments19:

  • All members of Australian society must have equal opportunity to realize their full potential and have equal access to programs and services.
  • Every person should be able to maintain their culture without prejudice or disadvantage and should be encouraged to understand and embrace other cultures.
  • Needs of migrants should be met by programs and services available to the whole community but special services and programs are necessary at present to ensure equality of access and provision.
  • Services and programs should be designed and operated in full consultation with clients and self-help should be encouraged as much as possible.

20 A recent study of 6 088 South Australians in metropolitan and rural areas found 87.7 percent believed cultural diversity was a positive influence on the community.21

Both federal and state governments in Australia have strong multicultural policies, programs, agencies and institutions. A neglected dimension of multicultural policy and thinking has been the role of indigenous societies and cultures, which are a crucial element in national diversity. This group make up around 2 percent of the national population and remain disadvantaged and excluded from aspects of mainstream society.

Immigrants have lower rates of participation in the labour market although some categories (e.g. skilled migrants) have higher participation than the Australian-born.

Migration and population policy



  1. Hugo (2006).
  2. ABS (2009).
  3. Fiscal year: 1. July to 30 June of the following year.
  4. Hugo (2005a).
  5. Bedford et al. ( 2003).
  6. DIAC (2008a: 44).
  7. Sanderson (2009).
  8. Hugo (2004).
  9. DIAC (2009a: 85).
  10. Bell and Hugo (2000).
  11. Khoo et al. (2007).
  12. The Labour government was elected in 2007 after eleven years of the conservative Liberal and Country parties being in power.
  13. World Bank (2006).
  14. DIAC (2009a).
  15. Permanent departures are permanent residents and citizens of Australia who, when leaving the country, indicate they are leaving permanently. Research has indicated, however, that a significant proportion return (Osborne 2004).
  16. Hugo et al. (2003).
  17. DIAC (2009a: 12).
  18. Galbally (1978).
  19. Jupp (2002: 87).
  20. Betts (2008: 20).
  21. Government of South Australia (2008).

About the author:
Graeme Hugo is Professor of Geography and Director of
the National Centre for Social Applications of GIS at the
University of Adelaide, Australia.


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    • Hugo, G.J., 2004. New Zealanders in Australia in 2001, New Zealand Population Review, 30, 1-2, pp. 61-92.
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    • Hugo, G.J., 2006. Temporary Migration and the Labour Market in Australia, Australian Geographer, 37, 2, pp.211-231.

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    • Price, C.A., 1979. Australian Immigration: A Bibliography and Digest. No 4, Department of Demography, Australian National University, Canberra.
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    • World Bank, 2006. At Home and Away: Expanding Job Opportunities for Pacific Islanders Through Labour Mobility, World Bank Report, Washington.

Internet Sources

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.