19th Century Migrants

Chinese Camp at Creswick1840: British establish the colony of Hong Kong, open China to world trade

1851: Discovery of gold in Australia

1866: Emigration from Japan is permitted

The first significant phase of non-European migration was the result of the discovery of gold in 1851.Previously, Asian migrants had been agricultural labourers, they arrived in the thousands in the second half of the 19th century in search of wealth. As a result the towns of Bathurst, outside Sydney, and Ballarat and Bendigo outside of Melbourne became multicultural hubs. The gold fields attracted various immigrants, the largest non European nationality were the Chinese.

Perceptions of a racial hierarchy, of which Caucasians were superior, embodied British imperialism and were common during the 19th century, influencing attitudes and rationalizing discriminatory treatment. Cultural clashes quickly erupted between Chinese and European and American diggers sparking violent clashes and a growing anti-Chinese sentiment. These sentiments began to form restrictive legislation, which formed the notion of 'White Australia', one that dominated the era of Federation and dramatically affected 20th century migration.

Restricting Migration

Immigration Restriction Act1881: NSW Influx of Chinese Restriction Act

1901: Immigration Restriction Act

1903: Naturalization Act

Legislation to restrict the influx of undesirable migration was being passed by the colonies during the last decades of the 19th century. Laws such as the Influx of Chinese Restriction Act of 1881 were introduced to limit the growth of ethnic communities. At the time of Federation; January 1 1901, 98% of Australians were of British descent, determined to conserve a 'White Australia' and to establish control of migration, the new Australian federal government passed the Immigration Restriction Act December 23 1901.

The IRA imposed racial and ethnic discriminatory measures on non-British migrants deemed undesirable which were subject to strict conditions upon entry into Australia. These measures were enforced by the use of the Dictation Test, issued by Customs Officials, it required migrants to write a 50 word passage in any European language. The threat and implementation of the Dictation Test essentially stopped 'coloured' immigration for the first half of the 20th century.

Few exceptions were granted to existing 'ethnic' migrants, mainly for economic reasons. Valuable communities such as the 'Afghan Cameleers', instrumental in the exploration of Australia's interior and the Japanese pearl divers in the northern waters went to great lengths to obtain exemption from the dictation test. After Federation, Naturalization; the process of the legal act by which a non-citizen obtains citizenship, which provided civil rights such as the vote, ceased to be granted to non-British migrants.

Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia


non-european migration pie chartPost WWII 'Populate or Perish' campaign to defend Australia, government sponsored assisted passage for European migrants

1951: UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, and 1967 Protocol, adhered by Australia

1958: Migration Act replaces IRA

1972: Multiculturalism becomes official public policy of the Whitlam government

1975 Fall of Saigon after communist victory, mass emigration from southern Vietnam

1975 foundation of Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), multilingual and multicultural radio and television broadcasting

1976 Vietnamese refugees begin arriving in Australia on fishing vessels

1977 Galbally Report concentrated on the provision of migrant services

1979 Asia becomes a large regional source of immigrants contributing to 29% of total migration, compared to19% from the UK.

1986 Creation of the first museum dedicated to migration; the Migration Museum of Adelaide, recognized the contribution of migrants to South Australia.

Following Japanese aggression during the Second World War, the 'Populate or Perish' campaign advocated for a relaxation of restrictive immigration policies to increase the population so as to better defend Australia. The United Nations 1951 convention of the status of refugees forced several western countries to redefine their immigration legislation including that of Australia to accept and increase the amount of refugees. The IRA was replaced by the Migration Act in 1958, the new act removed the use of the Dictation Test.

Multiculturalism; defined as including many cultures, was introduced by the Whitlam government in 1972, stipulating that race would no longer be a basis for immigration control and the abolition of the WAP. Civil conflicts in central Europe and South East Asia produced displaced persons who sought refuge in Australia during the mid-1970s. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese refugees began arriving on northern Australian shores in fishing vessels unsuited for the journey.

The 1977 Galbally report into the post arrival services for migrants promoted equal opportunity, the maintenance of culture without prejudice and that migrants needs be met by services designed for self-reliance. Following the recommendations of the report, governments of the 1970s and 1980s were the most generous towards migration and the provision of migrant services.

Globalization and the accessibility of air travel have transformed the cultural composition of contemporary Australia. Today, one in four Australians are born overseas, people from around the world come to work, live and settle in Australia. Currently migrants from New Zealand, China and India are the most numerous  non-European migrant arrivals. Contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts continue to produce refugees who embark on dangerous journeys arriving in Australia by boat.


One Nation party flyer1988: Australian Colonial Bicentenary, emphasis on British heritage

1989: Formation of the Australians Against Further Immigration Party

1989: Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese students in Australia are given residency.

1990: Mandatory detention of 'unauthorized' arrivals including refugees and asylum seekers.

1992: Migration Amendment Act stipulates refugees receive temporary protection rather than permanent residency.

1997: Formation of the One Nation party

1999: Border Protection Act, followed by the Border Protection Bill in 2001

August 2001: Tampa affair, 433 asylum seekers refused entry into Australia receiving international attention

2001: Implementation of the Pacific Solution, processing refugees and asylum seekers offshore in detention centres.

October 2001: sinking of SIEV X, death of 300 asylum seekers

2005: Cronulla race riots; attack on Lebanese community

2009: Melbourne attacks on Indian students

Throughout Australian history, contentious economic and employment circumstances have contributed to anti-migrant sentiments. Opposition to multiculturalism and Asian immigration grew in the 1980s. Discriminatory perspectives became the platform of political parties such as the Australians Against Further Immigration party and the One Nation party who advocated for zero net migration and warned against Asian migration which would 'swamp' Australia, spreading fear that migrants would create a lower level of living standards, which historically is known to be effective in producing anti-immigration sentiment.

The Tampa affair of 2001 marked a decisive moment in contemporary immigration policy when the Howard government refused the entry of Norwegian shipping freighter MV Tampa carrying 438 rescued refugees into Australian waters. The event lead to the Border Protection Bill passed by the government with Prime Minister Howard famously quoting: 'We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.' Subsequently the Pacific Solution was created to process refugees and asylum seeker claims outside of Australian territory on islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Biased and prejudicial perspectives persist in contemporary society and lead to racially motivated crimes in Australian communities as seen in the Cronulla race riot of December 2005, where attacks occurred on Lebanese Australians and in the Melbourne attacks on Indian students in 2009.

In 2013, operation Sovereign Borders was launched by the current Abbott government to deter boat arrivals by towing back refugee vessels. Australia currently has one of the most restrictive immigration control system of any democracy, frequently changing its policies and procedures to avoid accountability and limiting access to information, it is also referring to recent undocumented arrivals as 'illegals', terminology which promotes negative perceptions.

Content owner: Museum Last updated: 07 Nov 2019 1:18pm

Back to the top of this page