Australia's immigration history

Since the First Fleet dropped anchor in 1788, close to 10 million settlers have moved from across the world to start a new life in Australia. They have arrived in waves, encouraged by developments like the 1850s gold rushes, or to escape adverse conditions at home such as the Industrial Revolution’s social upheavals in 19th-century Britain, the two world wars and the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Collectively these migrants have helped shape a unique British-based and now multicultural society on the perimeter of Asia.

Group of migrants on MV Toscana at Trieste, 1954

Image: Group of migrants on MV Toscana at Trieste, 1954. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen

Convict transportation

From 1788 to 1868 Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts from its overcrowded prisons to the Australian colonies, forming the basis of the first migration from Europe to Australia. When these first Europeans arrived they did not find an empty land as expected. They were outnumbered by more than 500,000 indigenous Aboriginal people whose ancestors had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years.

Free immigrants

Between 1793 and 1850 nearly 200,000 free settlers and assisted immigrants chose to migrate to Australia to start a new life. The majority were English agricultural workers or domestic servants who outnumbered the Irish and Scottish migrants.

SS Great Britain leaving Prince’s Pier, Liverpool, for Australia, 1852

Image: SS Great Britain leaving Prince’s Pier, Liverpool, for Australia, 1852. ANMM Collection

Labourers

Did you know the Chinese were the third largest migrant group in Australia after the British and Germans by 1901?

Thousands of Chinese people came to Australia during the 1850s gold rushes. When the gold was exhausted many took up market gardening or established businesses such as restaurants or laundries. In the second half of the 19th-century South Sea Islanders were recruited to work on Queensland sugar plantations, Afghan cameleers played a vital role in the exploration and opening up of the Australian outback, and Japanese divers contributed to the development of the pearling industry.

White Australia

Did you know migrants had to pass a dictation test in any European language in order to enter Australia between 1901 and 1958?

Following Federation in 1901 Australia’s newly-formed Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which placed certain restrictions on immigration and aimed to stop Chinese and South Sea Islanders from coming to Australia. These laws, known as the White Australia policy, were administered by a dictation test and informed Australian attitudes to immigration for the next 50 years.

Populate or perish

In the years after World War 2, Australia stepped up its immigration with the catchphrase ‘Populate or perish!’ It negotiated agreements to accept more than two million migrants and displaced people from Europe, offered assisted £10 passages to one million British migrants, nicknamed ‘Ten Pound Poms’, and finally, in the 1970s, repealed the restrictive White Australia policy framed in 1901.

Boat people

In the late 1970s, just as the last migrants to travel by ocean liner arrived in Australia, a new wave of seaborne refugees docked in Darwin, firstly from East Timor and then from Indochina. The Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in particular arrived at a time of dramatic social upheaval in Australia, with spirited public debate about our involvement in the Vietnam War, the new concept of multiculturalism, the breaking of many of Australia's traditional ties with Britain, and the forging of new links with Asia. Despite some opposition from the wider community, the relaxation of immigration restrictions meant that most of the refugees were allowed to settle in Australia. They were followed by a second wave of boat people from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China in the late 1980s and 1990s. 

Asylum seekers

Since the late 1990s increasing numbers of asylum seekers fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Sri Lanka have arrived in Australia by boat. They are distinct from the previous two waves of boat people in that they usually involve larger numbers of arrivals and their passage is often organised by people smugglers. Today the question of how to deal with asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised voyages remains one of the most polarising debates in contemporary Australia.

Milestones in Australian democracy

This timeline of Australian democracy includes key milestones in Australia’s immigration history. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.