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Migration to and from Australia and New Zealand: A Brief History | Australia and New Zealand |

Australia and New Zealand Legal transfers of Restrictive Immigration and Asylum Policies Australia Background Information Permanent Migration Temporary Migration Irregular Migration Emigration Population Conclusion References History of Migration in Australia and New Zealand

Migration to and from Australia and New Zealand: A Brief History

Alan Gamlen Henry Sherrell

/ 6 Minuten zu lesen

Australia’s and New Zealand’s history has been interwoven with immigration: of aboriginal Australians and Māori, European settlers and, more recently, of people from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

People walk near Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2021. (© picture-alliance)

Australia and New Zealand are both classical countries of immigration, formed by indigenous peoples, transformed by British settler colonization, and systemically dependent on immigration for economic and demographic growth. These South Pacific neighbours share one of the most open bilateral borders in the world. Both have re-orientated towards the Asia-Pacific region since the 1970s, overturning racist colonial migration policies in favour of economic entry criteria, and attracting growing numbers of temporary migrants in addition to a more diverse range of permanent settlers.

The first great settler boom and bust: 1841-1900

Aboriginal Australians arrived in Melanesia some 50,000-65,000 years ago, whereas Māori settled Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) via Polynesia some 700 years ago. In 1788, both countries fell under British colonial rule, when the First Fleet, bearing convicts, established Australia’s first penal colony in what it now Sydney. The British used a Treaty to claim ‘sovereignty’ – then an alien concept – over New Zealand Maori, and then commenced large-scale, commercially organized settlement. In Australia, Britain signed no treaty with the indigenous inhabitants, whom they brutally displaced and dismissed as nomads, classifying the continent as terra nullius: unoccupied land, free for settlement.

Figure 1: Net migration, New Zealand and Australia 1860-1901 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Unlike in North America, Australia and New Zealand required ‘assisted migration’, sponsored by government and businesses, to overcome the huge distances and costs involved in migration from Europe and ensure the right balance of capital and labour. Spontaneous migration also occurred in the 19th Century, creating immigration booms and busts and rapid population changes. From the 1850s, the gold rush to Australia and to New Zealand led to rapid population growth. After lull in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the so-called ‘Great Migration’ began, with net migration rates nearing all-time peaks. In New Zealand this ended with the bust in export commodities from the mid-1870s; in Australia it ended when Melbourne’s massive real-estate bubble burst in 1891.

Britain’s ‘white dominions’ in the Pacific: 1901-1945

Australia and New Zealand were planned as white British colonies, and their first active efforts at immigration control aimed to curb non-white immigration, especially from China. From 1881, following the Canadian and Australian examples, New Zealand imposed poll taxes on Chinese immigrants. In Australia these efforts culminated in the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 – commonly known as the White Australia policy.

Figure 2: Share of foreign-born (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The end of Empire and the push to populate: 1946-1973

After World War II, many British colonies – including Australia and New Zealand – established independence, and urgently needed population growth. Australia had already resumed active recruitment after World War I and now began a program of mass migration under the slogan “populate or perish”. When Britain couldn’t supply enough immigrants, it quickly recruited post-war European refugees and assisted passage from the Netherlands, Germany, Malta, Italy, Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. Unassisted migration was also embraced, including skilled and family migrants from Asia. New Zealand established a postwar Population Committee which formed an assisted migration program, first from Britain and Ireland in 1947, then later from the Netherlands.

Globalization, diversification, and multiculturalism: 1974-1995

The political and economic upheavals of the 1970s catalysed sweeping changes to immigration policy in Australia and New Zealand. The oil shocks, and global recession led to an era of economic transformation and rising globalization. Britain cut its Commonwealth trading ties and joined the European Economic Community, leading both Australia and New Zealand to reorient towards their Asian Pacific neighbourhood. Both countries began to overhaul the race-based colonial-era ‘populate or perish’ paradigm, replacing it by economic admission criteria and ‘multicultural’ policies towards immigrant settlement. Skilled immigration was welcomed, unskilled immigration was slashed.

In 1979, emulating Canada’s immigration ‘points test’, Australia introduced the Numerical Multifactor Assessment System (NUMAS), which assessed applicants against economic criteria. A similar system was later adopted by New Zealand. Over time there has been decreasing emphasis on generic skills and increasing emphasis on employer sponsorship, based on increasing evidence that immigrants performed better on a range of settlement outcomes if they secured a job before arriving, rather than after.

The second great migration boom: 1996-2023

From the mid-1990s, Australia and New Zealand both entered a sustained period of growing migration unequalled since the 19th century. All categories of immigration have expanded: humanitarian, permanent, and especially temporary inflows.

Since the 1990s, the biggest temporary flows are working holiday makers – young adults traveling in Australia for twelve months, during which time they are allowed to work and study for a limited time – and international students, but there are also visa schemes for temporary migration of Pacific Island citizens to work on farms.

Temporary visas are now often treated as a first step towards permanent immigration. This trend is a major driver of the expansion in temporary inflows.

Figure 3: Permanent vs temporary immigration (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Temporary visas, however, came under fire for over-empowering employers, weakening unions, and enabling worker exploitation. In 2022-23, the Albanese Government commissioned a review of Australia’s migration system, and announced a major overhaul to address the exploitation of temporary migrant workers, and shift the system back to more focus on permanent channels.

Humanitarian migration

Both New Zealand and Australia resettle UN refugees, as signatories to the Refugee Convention and Protocol. Australia prides itself on a refugee resettlement program that is generous by international standards, humane, fair, orderly, and compliant with international law. But its hard-line approach to asylum seekers who arrive by boat without visas is bipartisan, despite protests from humanitarian groups. The Keating Government (1991-96) introduced mandatory detention for boat arrivals. The Howard Government (1996-2007) established extra-territorial detention and asylum-processing centres. The Abbot Government (2013-2015) launched ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, a zero-tolerance campaign of naval interceptions, mandatory detention, offshore processing, and information blackouts. Subsequent governments have – to date – maintained this restrictive stance on asylum seekers arriving by boat on Australia’s shores. There is a widespread perception that New Zealand is more generous towards refugees, but it receives zero boat arrivals because of its remote location, and has always had a much less generous per capita refugee quota than Australia.

Australia’s 2022-23 Humanitarian Program ensures permanent resettlement of 17,875 refugees, whereas New Zealand’s Refugee Quota Programme provides for the resettlement of 1,500 refugees a year from 2022/23 to 2024/25. In 2022, New Zealand agreed to resettle 450 refugees transferred by Australia to Nauru for offshore processing.

The immigrant population

Most of the 7.6 million migrants living in Australia in June 2020 were born in Great Britain (980,000), India (721,000), China (651,000) and New Zealand (565,000). All in all, 30 percent of Australia’s population was born abroad.

According to New Zealand’s 2018 Census, 27.4 percent of the country’s five million residents were born overseas. The largest group were immigrants born in the United Kingdom (249,600), followed by people born in China (132,900) and India (117,400).


As a result of their long history as receivers of mass immigration, Australia and New Zealand have evolved expansive and sophisticated institutional systems for controlling these flows, designed to maintain socio-economic stability while managing immigration flows that often exceed one per cent of the population each year – an extraordinarily high rate by international standards. Indeed, in these countries, government migration control has been more about proactively recruiting immigrants than about turning people away. A migration system dominated by permanent colonial settlement has transformed into one dominated by temporary and step-wise migration, and the colonial goals of nation-building and race-based immigrant recruitment have given way to the goals of economic management via skills-based recruitment. Planned largescale immigration remains central to the identity of the nation and the purpose of the state in both countries.

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Dr. Alan Gamlen is Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance at The Australian National University. He is an expert on human migration and mobility. Amongst his latest books is Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions (Oxford University Press 2019).

is an independent migration expert with a strong focus on Australian and international immigration policy.