Australia’s migration history

Australia’s migration history

The nineteenth century

In 1788, when European settlement began, Australia’s Aboriginal population was about 400,000. Today, over 20 million people live here. Migration has been the main driver for this change. In New South Wales, four out of every ten people are either migrants or the children of migrants.

Clearly Australia has a rich migration history. However attitudes to migration and particularly to the ideal source of migrants have changed considerably over these 218 years. The first migrants were decidedly involuntary, the convicts transported from Britain, Ireland and, to a lesser degree, other British colonies. Altogether 80,000 arrived in New South Wales between 1788 and 1840. From the 1830s they were joined by small numbers of voluntary migrants, again principally from Britain and Ireland. Some came under their own resources, others with assistance from one of the public or private schemes then available.

However, with the discovery of gold just outside Bathurst in 1851, the nature of Australian migration changed completely. People arrived in far greater numbers and from more varied backgrounds than ever before. Between 1851 and 1861 over 600,000 came and while the majority were from Britain and Ireland, 60,000 came from Continental Europe, 42,000 from China, 10,000 from the United States and just over 5,000 from New Zealand and the South Pacific. Although Australia never again saw such a rush of new immigrants, the heightened interest in settling here remained. By the time of Federation the total population was close to four million of whom one in four was born overseas. Many had been given assisted passages. Whilst the majority were of British or Irish extraction, there were significant numbers of Europeans, particularly Germans, and Chinese.

The infamous ‘White Australia’ policy: keeping Australia British

When the colonies federated in 1901, control of immigration changed. Instead of each colony managing its own system, the Commonwealth now oversaw recruiting and selection. Assisted passages were offered to encourage migration with priority still being given to the British and Irish. Despite comparatively large numbers of Chinese residents in Australia, the first legislation passed by the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Often referred to as the ‘White Australia policy’ this effectively banned Asian migration for the next fifty years. That same year the Federal Parliament passed the Pacific Islands Labourers Act to prohibit their employment as contract labourers and to deport those already here.

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, migration almost ceased. Furthermore, some migrants from countries previously thought acceptable were now reclassified as ‘enemy aliens’. Those born in Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and Turkey faced internment or general restrictions on their daily lives. Altogether about 7,000 people were interned, with camps in New South Wales at Berrima, Trial Bay and Liverpool. After the war, the 1901 Immigration Act was extended to ban people from these countries for five years. The ban on Turkish people was not lifted until 1930.

With the 1918 peace came a revival of assisted migration schemes. The British Government offered ex-servicemen free passage to one of the dominions or colonies and 17,000 arrived in Australia between 1919 and 1922. Church and community organisations such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army sponsored migrants. Small numbers also arrived independently. As the United States sought to limit migration of Southern Europeans, increasing numbers of young men from Greece and Italy paid their own way to Australia. By the 1930s, Jewish settlers began arriving in greater numbers, many of them refugees from Hitler’s Europe. However the 1929 stockmarket crash and the Great Depression put an end to sponsored migration and it was not until Australia had again fought a war that it was resumed.

Just as in the First World War, with the outbreak of the Second World War previously acceptable migrants — Germans, Italians, Japanese and Hungarians – were reclassified ‘enemy aliens’ and interned or kept under close police surveillance. No distinction was made on the basis of political sympathies. Thus, a large group of Jewish refugees that arrived on the Dunera in September 1940 were interned first at Hay in New South Wales, and later at Tatura in Victoria.

‘Populate or perish’: post war migration

When the war ended, the government took an entirely new approach to migration. The near invasion of Australia by the Japanese caused a complete rethink of ideal population numbers. As Prime Minister Ben Chifley would later declare, ‘a powerful enemy looked hungrily toward Australia. In tomorrow’s gun flash that threat could come again. We must populate Australia as rapidly as we can before someone else decides to populate it for us.’ i In 1945, the Department of Immigration was established, headed up by Arthur Calwell. It resolved that Australia should have annual population growth of two per cent, of which only half could come from natural increase. 70,000 immigrants a year were needed to make up the difference.

However, although the government wanted the majority to be Anglo Celtic – and Arthur Calwell declared ‘It is my hope that for every foreign migrant there will be 10 people from the United Kingdom’ ii in fact the British Government was both unable and unwilling to meet such a high target. At the same time, some 11 million people had survived the Nazi labour and concentration camps and many, particularly Poles, Yugoslavs, Latvians, Ukrainians and Hungarians, were unable or unwilling to return home. Visiting Europe in 1947, Calwell therefore agreed to accept a minimum of 12,000 of these refugees a year.

On 28 November 1947, the first Displaced Persons – 844 young Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians – arrived on the General Heintzelman in Melbourne and were transferred to Bonegilla migration hostel. In exchange for free passage and assistance on their arrival, they agreed to work for the government for two years.

During the seven years this scheme operated, nearly 171,000 arrived. When this source came to an end, the Federal Government negotiated a series of migration agreements including with the Netherlands and Italy (1951), Austria, Belgium, West Germany, Greece and Spain (1952), and the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland (1954). In these immediate post war years Australia was second only to Israel in the proportion of migrants accepted. As a result, Australian society became markedly less British and Irish in character. At the 1961 census, eight per cent of the population was non-British in origin with the largest group being Italians followed by Germans, Greeks and Poles.

Most migrants arrived by ship, disembarking in major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. From there they were immediately taken to migration hostels in rural areas, often in former military barracks. With accommodation fashioned from old corrugated iron Nissen huts, migrants were frequently shocked at the primitive conditions. With men and women separated into single sex barracks, shared bathrooms and kitchens and a communal dining room serving unfamiliar, and often unpalatable food, migration hostels were neither comfortable nor welcoming. The intention was that migrants stay only four to six weeks until they could be resettled near their workplace. At times however work was difficult to find and some stayed for months if not years. Improvements were slow in coming. In 1969 family units opened at Villawood and migrants no longer had to share facilities. Yet, as one Polish immigrant who arrived there in 1975 remarked, ‘For the first time in my life I had a room to myself’. Some things had not changed, as to food, ‘After one week there we’d had enough’. iii

All assisted migrants aged over 16 had to work. Regardless of qualifications men were classified as labourers and women as domestics. One of the largest employers was the Snowy Mountain Scheme. Australia’s largest post war project, this diverted the course of the Snowy and Tumut Rivers to provide irrigation and generate hydro-electricity. The work was hard, dangerous and meant men lived for months in isolated and primitive camps. Other migrants found work in factories, in the burgeoning iron and steel industries, on the railways and in mines.

Although the official government policy was that migrants should assimilate into Australia’s Anglo Celtic culture, many celebrated their origins through membership of clubs, sporting and religious organisations. For some such community organisations made a huge difference in overcoming a sense of isolation. For others it came when they had their own homes and families and could grow familiar fruits and vegetables and eat traditional foods.

From a ‘White Australia’ to multiculturalism

From the 1950s, Australia began to relax its ‘White Australia’ policy. In 1956 non-European residents were allowed to apply for citizenship. Two years later the Dictation Test was abolished as a further means of exclusion. By the 1960s mixed race migration was becoming easier and in 1967 Australia entered into its first migration agreement with a non-European country, in this case Turkey.

Then in 1972 Australians elected their first Labor government since 1948. As Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby radically changed official policy. The quota system, based on country of origin and preservation of racial ‘homogeneity’, was replaced by ‘structured selection’. Migrants were to be chosen according to personal and social attributes and occupational group rather than country of origin. In 1973, declaring Australia a ‘multicultural’ society, Al Grassby announced that every relic of past ethnic or racial discrimination had been abolished. The Australian Citizenship Act of that year declared that all migrants were to be accorded equal treatment.

In 1975 the first of what would become known as ‘boat people’ arrived in Darwin. More than 25 000 arrived in the next thirty years, initially from East Timor and then from Vietnam, China and, most recently, the Middle East. All are subject to compulsory internment while their claims of refugee status are assessed. Although Australia has been criticised by the United Nations and Amnesty International for the injustice of interring all illegal migrants, particularly children, it continues to this day.

In 1988 the Fitzgerald Inquiry led to further changes in migration with a move away from ‘family reunion’ towards an emphasis on skilled and business categories. The assisted passage scheme had ended in 1981 and only refugees are given any level of support on their arrival in Australia. In 1996, for the first time in Australia’s migration history, the number of British migrants arriving fell to second place behind New Zealand. Renewed prosperity in Europe has also meant that, where once Italians and Greeks made up the majority of non-British new arrivals, today, after New Zealand, it is people from China, South Africa and India. Conflicts overseas have also meant that Australia is now taking refugees from countries previously unrepresented. In 2006 the fastest growing refugee group is from Sudan followed by Afghanistan and Iraq.

i James Jupp, 62

ii 62

iii Kate Walsh, The changing face of Australia: A century of immigration 1901-2000, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2001, 169