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Each year nearly half a million people arrive in Australia. Approximately 13% of these are from Britain and New Zealand, 7% from China, 6% from India and 5% from South Africa. The arrival of these and other migrants onto Australian shores has occurred for a long time. Research suggests that migration has occurred for as long as 40,000 years, with the first major period of colonisation of Australia by the first Aboriginal people. There were a series of progressive waves of migration from different points around the north and north-west of Australia, penetrating inland as conditions became favourable. This was followed two centuries ago by the arrival of the first Europeans, with migration continuing steadily from other countries in the globe and region. Today, many regard Australia as a multicultural society as 25% of its 19.9 million people have been born overseas, reflecting a diversity of cultures, races and religions that did not previously exist before the end of the Second World War. This chapter discusses historical and current trends in migration with an emphasis on the increasing numbers of migrants to Australia from neighbouring Asia-Pacific countries. It also looks at the various types of immigration and the overall impact on Australia's links to its region.

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Migrant Australians and historical trends

Migrants seek entry into Australia for many reasons. More than 40 000 years ago, the first Aboriginal people crossing into Australia sought food, water, and better climate conditions, settling in resource rich areas along rivers and coastlines. Migrants from Europe also settled along rivers and coastlines seeking better living conditions due to flood, drought, disease, starvation or war occurring in their homelands. Even some of the early British convicts saw Australian life as an improvement over the poverty of London. Other migrants into Australia sought, and continue to seek, an escape from religious and political persecution, and better employment opportunities. Since the 1970s, the latter have included larger numbers of non-Europeans in its Asian refugees, relatives of refugees and skilled migrants. The acceptance of Asian migrants reflects Australia's changing relationship with other countries in its region.

Changing migration patterns

It is argued that Australia has always been a land of migrants. However, from 1901 up until recent decades, an acceptable migrant had to be white (in conformity with the White Australia Policy), preferably British, Irish, or from an English-speaking country in the British Empire. Following the First World War, Australia sought to increase its immigration in response to needing more workers to fill its manufacturing industries, a bigger consumer market, and the development of Australia's open spaces. The belief was that Australia must 'populate or perish'. With the Second World War, defence became an issue, as it was felt that a larger population would make it easier to defend the country from a possible future invasion.

The end of the war saw Australia facing a humanitarian crisis, with millions of refugees in Europe including inmates freed from concentration camps and Eastern Europeans fleeing communism. It was in this climate that for the first time Australia actively sought non-British migrants in the form of refugees from an expanding number of other European countries. The intention had still been to keep Australia white, with ten migrants from Britain for every other migrant, but by the late 1960s the White Australia Policy had been abandoned. Since then, the impact of post-war immigration could be seen in the gradual ending of the long-accepted policy of assimilation, and in the acceptance of the policy of integration, where migrant groups were allowed to maintain their national identity while still becoming part of the larger community.

In the 1970s, the policy of integration was expanded into the policy of multiculturalism and, with the increased size of Australia's population, and the changes brought into Australian social and cultural life, this resulted in the attraction of Australia to greater numbers of migrants born in the countries of South-East Asia, North-East Asia and South Asia. New Zealand, however, remains the largest regional source of migrants to Australia. An early example of increased regional migration from South-East Asia includes the Liberal government's acceptance of refugees, known as 'boat people', from Indochina following the Vietnam War.

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Current migration programs

Australia currently has immigration programs that allow people to live in Australia on various grounds. They include the Migration Program, with business and general skilled migrant entry as well as family member and special eligibility entry. The Migration Program aims at attracting people who have skills in particular professions or trades deemed to benefit Australia. It has required high levels of English and recent work experience, or already-completed Australian qualifications as the result of study in Australia. Migrants with family or children who are Australians have also been accepted. Migrants given special eligibility are those who have close ties with Australia or are former residents returning to Australia. Migrants are also allowed entry under the Humanitarian Program which targets refugees and others who have faced serious human rights abuses. It implements an offshore resettlement program which assists those in humanitarian need for whom resettlement in another country is the only option. It also applies an onshore protection program for those already in Australia who arrived on temporary visas, or illegally, and who seek asylum.

Policy on illegal migrants

Illegal migrants under the Migration Act (1958) are those who enter or work in Australia without authority or who overstay their visas. The Act requires that unlawful migrants be subject to mandatory immigration detention and to deportation unless given permission to stay in Australia. There is presently an estimated 50 000 people in Australia who have overstayed visas, the majority of whom are British nationals. The majority of detainees are recent Middle Eastern and South-East Asian asylum seekers who have illegally landed in Australia, often under the guidance of people smugglers. The increased numbers of these people has resulted in policy changes regarding refugees to deter future arrivals. Those arriving by boat or other means without official classification as refugees are no longer granted refugee status on arrival. Many of these asylum seekers are turned away due to the excision of some parts of Australia from the official migration zone. Such excised areas include Christmas Island, Manus Island, Melville Island, Cocos Islands, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, and Nauru.

Migrant population and its impact

Currently, about 71.84 percent of the Australian population is Australian born. The rest of the population is comprised of migrant residents and their families, originating from various countries all over the world. Though the United Kingdom still makes up the largest percentage of migrants to Australia, the current trend is shifting towards an increase in migrants from Asia-Pacific countries. A break down of migrants living in Australia includes:

  • United Kingdom: 1 035 000 persons, 5.46% of total population

  • New Zealand: 350 000 persons, 1.88% of total population

  • Italy: 220 000 persons, 1.15% of total population

  • Vietnam: 155 000 persons, 0.82% of total population

  • China: 140 000 persons, 0.75% of total population

  • Greece: 115 000 persons, 0.61% of total population

  • Germany: 110 000 persons, 0.57% of total population

  • Philippines: 100 000 persons, 0.55% of total population

  • India: 95 000 persons, 0.50% of total population

The increasing shift in the overseas sources of migrants from European to Asia-Pacific countries in its region brings with it many cultural, economic and geopolitical advantages and disadvantages for Australia. Positive impacts include the increase of demand for infrastructure through the spending by migrants on food and housing, the expansion of regional business and investment links and additions to labour and skills levels brought by migrants. Economic and strategic relations, particularly with New Zealand, have been strengthened by this shift to regional migration-sources. A concern by lobby groups for an ecologically sustainable population has highlighted some of the possible negative impacts. Other concerns have been over the association made between the concentrations of migrants in particular suburbs, such as in Sydney's Cabramatta and Fairfield, and higher levels of poverty, unemployment and crime. Points of regional instability are in the incidence of people smugglers bringing refugees to Australia from Indonesia and the problems caused for Australia's relationship with this country. Arguably the most visible impact has been the overall increase in the range of Australia's cultural backgrounds, with an overseas-born population of 140 recognised ethnic groups that speak more than 90 languages and practise about 80 religions.

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Question 1/5

1. The majority of migrants seek entry into Australia for which of the following reasons?

Better living standards

B. & C.

Unemployment benefits

Employment opportunities


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