Two centuries of Australia immigration

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For more than two centuries, extensive immigration has underpinned economic and social development in Australia. The immigrant share of Australia’s population is high, at 28 percent, and the foreign-born population has grown more diverse over time as the country amended immigration policies that once favored newcomers from European countries. In addition, Australia ranks third among refugee resettlement countries, after the United States and Canada, having resettled more than 840,000 people since 1947.

Since European settlement began in the late 18th century, overwhelming the indigenous population, immigration has played a major role in Australia’s population growth—in many periods comprising more than half of the annual increase. Between the end of World War II and 2016, the Australian population more than tripled, from 7.4 million to 24.2 million.

In the second half of the 19th century, concerns grew about competition on the goldfields and other potential threats to the domestic workforce posed by low-wage migrant labor from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Figure 1: Top Origin Countries of Permanent Resident Arrivals in Australia

Changes in the major source countries reflect this shift to nondiscriminatory selection, as well as the impact of economic, social, and political circumstances in individual countries. In 1972-73, around the formal end of the White Australia Policy, 43 percent of all permanent arrivals were from the United Kingdom and Ireland, while India ranked eighth with 2 percent (see Figure 1). By 2016-17, Indians had taken the lead, constituting 17 percent of the 226,000 permanent arrivals, followed by Chinese 13 percent and British 8 percent. Other non-European countries also grew in prominence, including the Philippines, Syria, and Vietnam.

In 2016, among all foreign born, those from the United Kingdom and New Zealand were the two largest groups, accounting for roughly 21 percent of Australia’s nearly 7.7 million immigrants. The next four top countries of origin—China, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam—were all in Asia.

Australia follows the Canadian practice of using a points system to weigh and adjudicate applications for admission as an economic immigrant, with criteria reflecting changing emphases on age, family ties, language, education, work experience, and occupation. Since the introduction of the Numerical Multifactor Assessment Scheme (NUMAS) in 1979, the system has favored younger, skilled migrants with knowledge of English—the type of workers required as Australia restructured its economy to better cope with the challenges of globalization, by moving toward knowledge-based industries and away from manual labor. Since the 1980s, special entry schemes have admitted investors and businesspeople, most recently emphasizing innovation and investment.

While Australian immigration policy favored European immigrants until the latter part of the 20th century, the shift in more recent decades toward diversified admissions has helped Australia become the multicultural and economically competitive nation it is today.

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