E.g., 12/03/2023
E.g., 12/03/2023
Australia's Continuing Transformation

Australia's Continuing Transformation

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The Australian government's hard-line policies to deter unauthorized entry by those arriving in unseaworthy boats on the country's northern coasts have dominated domestic and international discussions about Australian immigration since the beginning of the 21st century. But to focus on this relatively small number of so-called "boat people" is to overlook the far larger numbers of permanent and long-term temporary migrants whose arrival has ensured the continuing growth of Australia's diverse population.

Australia now faces competing economic, political, and cultural forces. Some groups, notably businesspeople, academia, and the hospitality sector, wish to facilitate easy access for temporary movements of tourists, students, and skilled workers, and to attract skilled immigrants. Other sectors raise concerns about cultural identity, sustainable development and, increasingly, security in the post-September 11 world. In this atmosphere, forming consensus around immigration issues will be a challenge for Australia's policy makers in the years to come.

Courting Immigrants

Immigration has been central to Australian population growth and national development since British colonization in 1788. What is distinctive about immigration to Australia today is its growing diversity. Nearly a quarter of the population was born in another country, compared to over 10 percent in the U.S. and over 17 percent in Canada. The shift in dominant immigration streams originating from Europe to the present flow from Asia has resulted from several changes in policy and geopolitical realities. In particular, the abandonment in the 1970s of a preference for British migrants and the elimination of the White Australia Policy, which severely restricted immigration by non-Europeans, put in motion a new set of dynamics that continue today.


Such change was not envisaged when Australia embarked on its post-war program to encourage greater immigration to supplement its 1947 population of 7.6 million, of which only 2.7 percent were born outside Australia, the United Kingdom, or Ireland. Yet, today, a growing proportion of Australia's population of nearly 20 million people is from Asia and over 40 percent are either foreign born (23.6 percent) or had a foreign-born parent (19 percent). The aim of the post-war mass migration program was to provide labor for reconstruction. National defense also required a larger percentage of the population per year. The government set an ambitious target to take in the equivalent of one percent of the population per year, but the historic reliance on British immigrants could not fill the gap. Facing a labor shortage, the government moved to accept 300,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe. Additional immigration was encouraged from northern and southern Europe, and later from the Middle East.

Contemporary Stocks and Flows

Settler arrivals have increased since 1997-1998 and are approaching the numbers of those who migrated in the peak migration period of the late 1980s. There were 125,860 permanent additions to the population in 2002-2003, 75 percent of them new arrivals (as distinct from individuals already in the country who had changed from temporary to permanent residence status). The recent trend for the majority (57 percent) to be admitted on the basis of their skills rather than family ties has been even more marked, while the numbers of those admitted under the Humanitarian program (10,185) in the same period remained relatively stable. In recent years, New Zealanders, who need no visas to travel to Australia, have been the major birthplace group arriving, but in 2002-2003 they were slightly outranked by those from the United Kingdom (13.3 percent).

In terms of overall immigration flows, major source countries vary from year to year. In 2002-2003, the major source countries were the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, India, South Africa, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Data from the 2001 census highlight the impact of post-World War II migration on Australia's diversity. While those born in the United Kingdom remain the largest foreign-born group, they are only 5.5 percent of the population. The next-largest group is made up of New Zealanders, followed by Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans, Greeks, and those born in the Philippines. The most significant growth since 1947 has been in the Asian born, who constitute 24 percent of the foreign-born population.

Within Australia, Sydney remains the preferred destination, although it now attracts slightly less than 40 percent of all settlers annually. With 35.3 percent of its population foreign-born, it embodies the newer non-European diversity, with the major mother tongues after English being Chinese and Arabic. This contrasts with Melbourne, where Italian and Greek, the languages of the longer-established European groups, remain dominant after English.

End of White Australia

The 1972 election of a Labor Party government, replacing the Liberal-Country Party coalition, which had been in power since 1949, marked a watershed in Australian immigration and settlement policies. A non-discriminatory immigration policy replaced the White Australia Policy and preferential treatment for British immigrants. In 1973, the renamed Australian Citizenship Act of 1948 began to eliminate the favored treatment for British subjects, who as ipso facto British citizens had the same rights as Australian citizens (access to all "restricted" jobs in government, voting rights) even if they did not take Australian citizenship. The changes were part of Labor's new nationalist agenda. Naturalization became possible for all immigrants after two years of permanent residence, and dual citizenship was allowed. Australian-born children of permanent residents also acquired Australian citizenship. Perhaps most significantly, the end of the White Australia Policy paved the way for immigration from source countries closer to home throughout the Asia-Pacific region.


By the late 1960s, assimilation policies had failed to address the growing disadvantages and difficulties among non-English speaking immigrants, sparking growing concerns among service providers and the newly naturalized immigrants. Assimilation policies were ultimately replaced by a policy of integration. Then, under a Labor government, the country moved toward a policy of multiculturalism. The 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia promoted multiculturalism as a policy for all Australians and initially targeted the needs of immigrants and their children, especially those who were not from English-speaking backgrounds. The policy on multiculturalism supported the rights to cultural maintenance, productive diversity, and social justice. These tenets were established alongside a primary commitment to Australia and the acceptance of such basic structures and principals as the Constitution, freedom of speech, and equality of the sexes.

Selecting Immigrants for Skills

As Australia's economy evolved in the post-war period, the country shifted from a reliance on foreign workers for manufacturing and other sectors to a broader approach. Following the move to a non-discriminatory immigration policy, three criteria were identified as the bases for selecting permanent immigrants:

  • Family migration for relatives
  • Skill-based migration for those with technical and professional qualifications or resources
  • Humanitarian and refugee admissions

The number of people admitted to each program is decided each year after community consultations. Visas are required for temporary entrants including skilled workers, visitors, students, and "working holiday makers." The Working Holiday Maker Scheme allows the entry of young people from countries with which Australia has a bilateral agreement to combine tourism with work for a period of up to 12 months, during which they can spend a portion of their stay working.

New Zealanders are visa-exempt under a special arrangement, although since February 2001, only New Zealanders granted permanent resident status have been eligible for social welfare and other benefits, including Australian citizenship. Previously, there was complete freedom of movement and rights to access social services for New Zealanders, but with the substantial growth of such arrivals there was concern by the Australian government that they were becoming a drain on the country's social service benefits.

Since the mid-1980s, when Australia began to restructure its economy to meet the challenges of globalization, there has been an increasing focus on developing high value-added sectors such as banking and insurance, as well as on building a knowledge-based economy. As a result, migration policy refocused on highly skilled workers, whether permanent or temporary.

Skilled workers are currently selected on the basis of points allocated for criteria including age, knowledge of English, recognized skills, and work experience in a list of skilled occupations. Since 1995-1996, skilled migration has increased relative to family migration, which it has outstripped since 1997-1998. In 2002-2003, there were 56,782 permanent residents admitted under the skill program, compared with 40,105 under the family program.

The unemployment of skilled migrants became a major issue during the 1990s and has led to two major policy changes. First, since July 1999, skilled migrants have been required to have their capabilities recognized by Australian professional/trade bodies as being equivalent to those of their Australian counterparts before they can apply for migration. Second, in July 2001, regulations were changed to allow recent foreign graduates of Australian universities to apply for immigrant status without leaving Australia or gaining relevant work experience. These changes reflect the greater acceptability of local qualifications in the labor market, as they imply a professional standard of English and local experience. Similarly, those on-shore applicants who change to permanent resident status from temporary skilled work visas do so with the assistance of an employer or after having established a successful business. These changes to allow on-shore applications for permanent residence from temporary residents have been a major factor in the rapid growth of this group, which now constitutes a quarter of what the immigration authorities call "permanent additions to the population."

In 1996, to facilitate the entry of temporary skilled workers, the duration of stay for these workers was extended to four years. Unlike settlers, there is no limit on the numbers admitted. Their ranks have grown rapidly, and in the period 1999-2000, long-term temporary entrants for the first time exceeded settler arrivals, reaching 52.3 percent of all long-term arrivals. By 2002-2003, temporary resident arrivals (excluding students and visitors) exceeded 101,000 people.

Humanitarian Admissions

In contrast to the family and skill programs, the humanitarian program, which includes people covered by the UN Refugee Convention, has retained a planning figure at around 12,000 places. The humanitarian program includes places for refugees resettled from abroad, a "Special Humanitarian Program" and a "Special Assistance Category." Successful on-shore asylum claims are also counted against the humanitarian quota.

An important change for on-shore asylum seekers was the October 1999 decision to grant temporary protection visas rather than permanent visas to successful applicants who had entered Australia without authorization. At the end of three years, such entrants either apply for a change to permanent status or leave. These visas do not allow for family reunion. These changes are suggested as a factor accounting for the fact that by the end of the 1990s, increasing numbers of women and children were arriving by boat, and then being placed in detention centers. In fiscal year 2000-2001, 80 percent of the protection visas granted were temporary. Holders of these visas are now coming to the end of their terms. Consequently, the government has to decide whether it is possible to return them to their countries of origin. In many cases, those from Afghanistan and Iraq are having their temporary visas extended.

Despite the publicity given to asylum seekers, their numbers are small by both international standards and Australia's migration program. Most attention is focused on the boat people, who numbered only 884 people for the entire five years between 1989 and 1994. From 1999 the number of boat people increased to 4,175 in 1999-2000, and 4,137 in 2000-2001. Since then, there has been a major decline in the number of such arrivals, which the government attributes to the effectiveness of its policy responses, including jailing the unauthorized arrivals in detention centers.

In 2000-2001, some 13,100 individuals applied for on-shore asylum, or "protection visas" as they are termed. The largest groups were Afghans (2,239) and Iraqis (1,252). Of the 5,579 people who received protection visas in 2000-2001 (some of whom applied in earlier years), 73.4 percent were Afghan or Iraqi. In 2002-2003, only 866 protection visas were issued, reflecting the declining number of applicants.

Some arrivals, where possible, have been repatriated, but the process has been controversial regarding earlier groups of Cambodians as well as more recent groups from Iran and Afghanistan. In May 2002, the government signed an agreement with Afghanistan to fund return and reinsertion; a similar strategy was used in the early 1990s with boat people from China. Many boat people remain in detention centers.

The sudden increase in arrivals by boat since 1999 prompted a strong response by the government, which was intent on deterring further arrivals. Since August 2001, it has become almost impossible for unauthorized arrivals to apply for asylum in Australia. Intercepted boat people are now returned to their point of last embarkation, detained on island territories declared to be outside of the country's migration zone, or transferred for processing to other Pacific Island countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

In one high-profile example of the new policies at work, in 2001, the government refused to allow the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, to deposit a group of rescued boat people on Australian territory. Instead, the government implemented its so-called "Pacific Solution" by persuading Papua New Guinea and Nauru to accept the boat people while their asylum claims were being processed. The strategy received widespread public support, but was questioned by some Australians who felt that this solution might be jeopardizing the protection of those with legitimate asylum claims. Almost three years later, the last of those sent to the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea have been allowed into Australia and there has also been a substantial decline in the number of detainees held on Nauru. While Australia has been quietly accepting some of these detainees, New Zealand has also taken a substantial number as refugees and some have been repatriated.

Immigration and Politics

Australia's growing diversity has challenged the former consensus about the appeal of immigration. Three major themes recur in the public debates: the desirability of large-scale immigration, the impact of diversity on Australian society, and human rights.

Since the 1970s, some ecologists have argued that migration must be halted because Australia's fragile physical environment cannot sustain a larger population. Among those supporting calls for a reduction, or at least a redistribution, of settler arrivals is the premier of New South Wales, who argues that Sydney's population growth must be halted in order to maintain a sustainable and liveable city. Government attempts to devise migration programs to encourage and require migrants to settle in rural areas and smaller cities have so far, however, met with little success.

Social conservatives, meanwhile, regret what they see as the dilution of the Anglo-Celtic heritage of Australia's original colonists. The electoral success of the populist Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, between its foundation in 1996 and its recent demise amid bitter internal quarrels, has shifted mainstream immigration politics to the right. In the 1998 elections, both major parties kept immigration issues off the agenda in public debates, but this was largely reversed in 2001. Both the Labor Party and the Liberal National Party coalition have adopted more restrictive positions on immigration and multiculturalism.

On taking office in 1996, the government closed key federal agencies associated with multiculturalism. Funding was also reduced for community agencies for ethnic minorities. The commitment to multiculturalism has also diminished at the state level. In 2001, the New South Wales Ethnic Affairs Commission was renamed the Community Relations Commission as part of a government strategy to remove the term "ethnic" from official documents.

Strengthening these trends toward lesser acceptance of ethnic diversity have been developments in the wake of two major terrorist attacks, those of September 11, 2001 and those in Bali in 2002 (which killed nearly 200 people, half of them Australian tourists). These attacks had an obvious effect on the political debate and public opinion, spurring less open and more security-minded approaches to migration. The so-called War on Terror led by the U.S. has encouraged similar lines of thinking. State and federal governments have introduced a range of measures in the name of stepping up security, which often involve paying particular attention to various Islamic groups. While religious and other groups are working together to increase dialogue between ethnic communities, individuals, especially women wearing the Muslim head scarf or hijab (full-length dress), often find themselves the target of hostility, according to a June 2004 report by the government's own Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

Human rights issues are the most contentious area of current debate, and the treatment of boat people has taken center stage. The current government's policy of "deterrence," that is, discouraging would-be asylum seekers from setting out for Australia in the first place by taking a hard line on illegal arrivals, has secured considerable public support.

Critics of government policy have also expressed concerns over the policy of mandatory detention, often in isolated locations with limited services, for all unathorized immigrants. A major rallying point for opponents has been the policy of holding women and children in detention centers. Adding fuel to these concerns has been a May 2004 report on children in detention by HREOC, which asserts that Australia is in contravention of its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is also questioning of the costs of maintaining the detention centers (which in December 2003 housed only 1,097 detainees) and paying the countries providing the Pacific Solution—even where, as in the case of Papua New Guinea, no detainees are currently being held. The government seems prepared to "stay the course," remaining convinced of the immigration control benefits of its tough stand and supported by broad public support. It finds itself, however, increasingly required by court decisions to defend its decisions concerning the treatment of asylum seekers and those, especially children, held in detention centers. Such legal challenges have led the government to seek to curtail the rights of the courts to adjudicate in a range of immigration matters.

With a federal election required by early 2005, the government has begun, however, to revisit some of its more contentious policies on asylum seekers. After initially rejecting some of the findings of the HREOC report, the minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, announced in early July the removal of all except one child of boat people from mainland detention centers. Nevertheless, women and children remain in the Nauru detention center, as do children from families in Australia awaiting deportation for other reasons.

Following this policy change, the government then announced that the 9,500 holders of temporary protection visas (TPVs) would be eligible to apply for permanent resident status under the family reunification and skills programs. Careful reading of the announcement indicated that very few of the 9,500 TPV holders were likely to benefit, as they lacked the relevant family links or skills. In recognition of the influence of rural government members of parliament who had argued for the changes on the basis that the TPVs were filling significant gaps in the rural labor market in the fruit and other industries, the minister announced that special provisions would be made to recognize their contributions and eligibility. Only when the final set of regulations is announced in August will it be possible to gauge how generous this policy change really is.

Issues for the Future

The opening of the new century finds Australia at the crossroads of competing economic, political, and cultural forces. On the one hand are trends to facilitate easy access for temporary movements of tourists, students, and skilled workers, and to attract skilled immigrants. On the other hand are concerns about cultural identity, sustainable development and, increasingly, security in a world where terrorism is seen as becoming ever more significant. In this atmosphere, forming consensus around immigration issues will be a challenge for Australia's policy makers in the years to come.

For the time being, editorial comment in the national press has noted that changes in the refugee policy are likely to defuse this matter as an election issue. The long-term challenge lies in whether future governments will be able to resist opportunities to play the "immigrant danger" card if there is an increase in asylum seekers and security fears.