The ancestors of Australian Aborigines first arrived on the continent of Australia tens of thousands of years ago, and were the first humans to settle down there. While nobody knows for sure whether the migrants arrived in just one or numerous waves or exactly how long ago they first lived there, most historians can agree that the migration occurred during the closing stages of the Pleistocene epoch, when the sea levels were much lower than today. The coastline was much further out, allowing the lands of Australia and New Guinea to combine into a single mass which was known as Sahul. It was connected by a long land bridge across the various waters – Arafura Sea, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait. It is believed that these early migrants arrived at Sahul by way of the Sunda Islands, and then traveled across the land bridge to settle all over Australia. With evidence pointing toward habitation as early as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, the Australian Aborigines were long established in the land. The ample seas around the landmass served as straits for cultural contact and trade, although it is believed that the Aborigines were the only ones to live in the land until about four thousand years ago, when Indian migrants came to Australia.
Much later in the 18th century, Britain sent out 11 ships containing about 1,350 people, most of them prisoners, in an attempt to ease the overcrowding in its prisons. Under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, these ships set sail for Australia in 1787 and reached Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. This settlement was formally known as the Colony of New South Wales. More convicts and free people later traveled to the colony, but due to complaints from the free settlers, convicts were no longer transported to the settlement in 1840 and were instead sent to other areas, including Van Diemen’s Land and Moreton Bay, which later became Queensland. A mix of convicts and free people had a part in colonizing most of Australia. Some of the free settlers founded Perth on the Swan River in Western Australia, but when the settlement was unable to prosper, they asked for some convicts to be transported there. On the contrary, South Australia and Victoria were colonized only by free settlers. The transportation of convicts ended in 1868, bringing about 165,000 convicts to Australia in total.
These new settlements in Australia attracted other free settlers from Britain and Ireland. Although the journey by sea was long, the free land was enticing, and many settlers were able to claim land for their own without any formal authority. Most of this land was cleared for farming purposes and the settlers who occupied them were known as squatters. While settlers were readily arriving to Australian shores, the real spike in Australia’s economy came when gold was discovered in 1851 near Bathurst in New South Wales and later also in Victoria. At the time, the world was suffering from a major economic depression and the prospect of gold brought around two percent of the British population to the continent. Among the new immigrants were Europeans, North Americans and Chinese. The population in Victoria grew rapidly due to the gold rushes, increasing from 77,345 (18% of the total population in Australia) to 538,628 (47% of the new total population in Australia) in just a decade.
In the later part of the 19th century, the Australian government realized that the colonies were unable to produce everything by themselves and required some skilled workers. However, since the journey from Europe to Australia was long and expensive, many workers preferred to migrate to Canada and the United States instead. As such, several Australian colonies pooled their funds together to subsidize the migration of some skilled laborers from Europe, beginning with German vintners to South Australia. This was a convenient way for Australia to control how many immigrants it needed for each economic season, as the amount of subsidy granted for new immigrants could be adjusted accordingly. With the steady influx of settlers, the Yungaba Immigration Center was built in Brisbane to facilitate the passage of new immigrants.
It is widely known that Australia underwent federation in 1901. However, what is probably less known is that part of the reason for becoming federated was to create a common immigration policy across the board. For one, many of the residents were resistant toward Chinese immigration and the contracting of New Caledonian workers to operate the Queensland sugar industry. Thus, a new policy arose – unofficially dubbed the “White Australia policy” – preventing all non-European people from migrating to Australia from the 1890s to the 1950s, and some elements of the policy even persisted up till the 1970s.
The exclusion of non-European people was pushed further due to Australia’s location on the edge of Asia, being one of the few, if not the only, white-populated country in the region. After the threat of the Japanese invasion in the second World War, Australia began to increase its European immigration so as not to be demographically outnumbered by the “yellow races”. Following World War II, Australia began a population program with the slogan “populate or perish”, bringing more than three million Europeans to the shores of Australia from the 1940s to the 1960s. The government also sought for workers with skills in the secondary industry sector in order to keep up with the technological advancements around the world. An assisted immigration scheme was made available to Britain, attracting young married couples and singles at a low price, but its popularity lasted for only a year. As such, to keep up the immigration targets, Australia brought in 12,000 people each year, mostly refugees, from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. They were granted asylum in Australia on the grounds that they would stay in Australia for two years and work in government selected jobs. Around 182,159 people were believed to have benefited from this program up till the end of 1954.
In 1958, Australia removed the European requirement for immigrants and more people were accepted from other regions, namely the Middle East, as long as they were able to contribute to Australia and integrate into the society. This proved to be a step in the right direction as it brought numerous professionals and highly skilled workers who could help Australia develop its tertiary industry. However, there were still strict restrictions for non-Europeans, which began to loosen up around 1966 and were finally abolished in 1973. This brought around 120,000 southern Asian refugees to the country, introducing the need for multicultural policies. Towards the 21st century, immigration accounted for most of the population growth in Australia.
One long-standing debate in the history of Australian immigration has been the issue of race. In 1938, the Australian government refused to accept Jewish immigrants, leaving them to their fates in World War II on the grounds that the country was not interested in importing a “real racial problem”. Even after the racial restrictions were lifted, non-European immigrants to Australia faced much opposition due to their races. The disproportionately high immigration rates from Asia were criticized and multiculturalism was met with opposition from several critics, including politicians. Although the main political party opposing it fell, the issue of race and immigration remains a sensitive topic in Australia even today.