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History of Australian immigration

history-migrationThe original owners

Until the late 1700s, the only human inhabitants of Australia were the aboriginal people, estimated to number 800,000 to 1 million people. The aborigines are considered to be the original owners of Australia, having arrived around 50,000 years ago. They lived in every corner of Australia and mastered survival in the harshest of environments. Before European settlement they were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, moving with the seasons to where the food was. They did not live in towns or grow crops. There is evidence of the aboriginal people of northern Australia trading with Indonesian fisherman as early as 500 years ago.

English settlement

The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, began the English settlement of Australia. The English established the country as a penal colony, and transported over 160,000 convicts in the first 80 years of settlement. The first prison was at Botany Bay in Sydney, but the largest was built at Port Arthur in Tasmania. Most of the convicts were British or Irish.

After release, convicts were given a plot of land to farm. Many of Australia’s most successful and well-known early settlers arrived in convict chains.

Attitudes towards Australia’s convict past have changed dramatically in recent years. To have a convict heritage was once an embarrassment, whereas now it is source of pride for many. Some say that the Australian values of ‘mateship’ and egalitarianism (treating everyone as equals) were established by the convicts as they struggled to survive extremely harsh conditions.

Although the English were the first European settlers in Australia, Dutch and Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to discover Australia, in the early 1600s. The Portuguese mapped much of the island and named it Terra Australis, or Great Southern Land.

The gold rush

Australian experienced a brief period of Chinese migration during the 1852-1889 gold rush in Victoria. Around 40,000 people left China for Australia. Unfortunately the Chinese workers were subjected to racial prejudice, which led to riots, mainly because they worked harder and found more gold than the locals. Eventually over 36,000 returned to China.

The Irish potato famine

Large numbers of Irish people migrated to Australia in the 1840s to flee the potato famine, which took almost a million lives. From 1841 to 1850, over 30,000 Irish landed in Australia through a migration assistance scheme.

The Cameleers

In the latter half of the 1800s, as commercial opportunities in central Australia increased, the harsh environment began to slow progress. Projects such as the Overland Telegraph and railways running across the country, north-south and east-west, required reliable deliveries of materials and supplies.

However, horses and donkeys were not well suited to travelling in the dry, hot and sandy conditions of inner Australia. It was decided that camels would be better suited to the task. Between 1870 and 1900 over 2,000 cameleers and 15,000 camels arrived from countries such as India, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. The men and camels contributed so much to opening up the interior of Australia that they became affectionately known as ‘the Ships of the Desert.’

White Australia Policy

One of the darkest chapters in the history of Australian immigration was the period of the White Australia Policy, from 1901 to 1966. When the Australian parliament was formed in 1901, restriction of non-European migration became a campaign issue in the country’s first election. Many Australians feared that they would lose their jobs if too many migrants were allowed in. This attitude began during the gold rush in the mid to late 1800s. Such concerns led to the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which prevented migration to non-Europeans.

However, the British Government (which had much more influence over Australia at that time) was concerned that the Act would offend non-white people in its Asian and African colonies. The Act was then re-written to remove any official restriction to non-Europeans and a language test for migrants was introduced. This test was so difficult for non-Europeans to pass that it served the same purpose as an official restriction anyway.

The end of the White Australia policy began with the intake of refugees following World War II, and finally the signing of the 1966 Migration Act which allowed for an increase in non-European migrants.

The White Australia Policy is a source of embarrassment to most Australians today, and is certainly very different to the current migration policies.

Post WWII migration

It wasn’t until the end of World War II that Australia became a truly multicultural society. There was a concern that, with such a small population, Australia might not be able to defend herself in another war. The government’s migration slogan became “populate or perish.”

The first initiative to grow the population, launched in 1945, was the offer of 10 pound fares to anyone in Britain who wanted to emigrate. Over the next 30 years, more than a million ’10 Pound Poms’ arrived in Australia.

In 1946, Australia agreed to cover the cost of migration for any British and Polish ex-servicemen and their immediate families.  Similar agreements were later signed with America, France, Denmark, Norway, and Belgium.

Peace treaties were signed with Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in 1948. Migration from these countries, particularly Italy, increased shortly after.

In the early 1950s Australia signed a number of Assisted Migration Agreements. As a result it took in large numbers of people from Greece, The Netherlands, West Germany, Malta, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Spain, Austria, Russia, and Czechoslovakia.

Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme is the largest engineering project in Australian history. It was started in 1949 with the aim of increasing the electricity supply to the country’s rapidly growing population, but also as a way to stimulate the economy after World War II. Over 70,000 migrants from 30 countries worked on the project. Most came to Australia on assisted-migration schemes.

Vietnamese migration in 1975

After the communist North Vietnamese won the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese who sided with the US and Australia were in danger. In 1975, Australia agreed to take in 137,000 Vietnamese refugees. Over the next 15 years, just over 120,000 arrived. The Vietnamese population is now one of the largest migrant groups in Australia.