The Force of Migrants in Australia Today: Figures & Insights

Bernard Salt in THE AUSTRALIAN,  30/31 July 2022  where the title reads “Celebrating Our Migration Nation”

It is a single demographic metric that encapsulates modern Australia. It is often the subject of heated debate. It rises and falls over time, but generally over the longer term it has kept an upward trajectory. It is the proportion of the locally based population born overseas. It includes immigrants but it also includes foreign students, backpackers and so-called guest workers based here for 12 months or more.

Asian migrant children tuck into vegemite sandwiches.

Australian Sudanese Peter Bol of Team Australia competes in the Men’s 800m Final on day nine of the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this month. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletic

The 2021 Census tracks this figure at 28 per cent down from 30 per cent five years earlier. In the wash-up between foreign students going home and expat Aussies coming home, Australia lost not just a cohort of (foreign) workers but also a thin slice of our cosmopolitan culture.

It could be argued, drawing upon UN data, that Australia is the richest, most inclusive large nation on Earth. Indeed, Australia’s pre-Covid proportion of the population born overseas compares with 15 per cent for the US, 14 per cent for the UK, 8 per cent for Russia, 2 per cent for Japan and 0.1 per cent for China. The only countries with 10 million or more residents and a higher proportion of foreign-born residents are Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and this is largely due to strong guest-worker programs.

From an immigrant’s perspective, Australia offers a high standard of living with a GDP per capita similar to the US as well as a culture that has accommodated large-scale immigration since 1947.

The largest overseas source of Australian residents is Britain at 1.047 million followed by India (673,000), China (550,00), New Zealand (530,000) and The Philippines (294,000). Interestingly, there are 85,000 Australians living in New Zealand, 104,000 in Britain and 103,000 in the US.

About 4000 Australians live in India and around the same number live in China. Equivalent figures for other countries are sketchy.

Australia’s immigrant waves rise and subside over time. This is evident in the 6 per cent fall in Australia’s Italy-born population over the five years to 2021. Even Australia’s British-born population is just holding its own at 2 per cent growth over this period.

Indeed, in a direct comparison between Australia’s British-born and India-born population it is evident that Australia’s “Englishness” is receding.

The rising forces within the Australian consumer market are from India, up 48 per cent over five years, followed by The Philippines (up 26 per cent) and Malaysia and Sri Lanka both up 20 per cent.

Australia left behind its singular Anglo base two generations ago; today’s Australia is a fusion of Anglo-Mediterranean-Asian-Indian and rising Arabic/Persian influences. We’re a complex lot but we are united, I think, by the common pursuit of lifestyle.

The Australian population transitioned from 10 per cent born overseas in 1947 to a recent peak of 30 per cent prior to the pandemic. Over these seven decades, the mix of immigrants has shifted from Britain and Europe to Asia, Africa and beyond.

As a consequence, Australia’s consumer culture has changed dramatically. Mediterranean immigrants began transforming the Australian palate from the 1970s onwards. Out with tea, in with coffee. In with arugula and olive oil and the idea of eating outdoors in the popular al fresco style.

Even the rise of Australian wine consumption (and production) can be in part attributed to the immigrant influence. Post-war Australia was a prosperous but remote community that eventually absorbed many of the cultural traits of the new arrivals. We copied, mangled, then mastered what we perceived to be sophisticated European living.
For example, greeting close friends with a kiss on the cheek is a Mediterranean affectation that blossomed amid the cafes and the lattes of inner-city Australia in from the 1980s onwards.

By the 1990s, Australia’s fixation with indoor-outdoor living was spreading from cafes to the home and into the back yard; it was a movement that could be traced via the rise and multiplication of white canvas market umbrellas.

In many respects, Australia’s globally unique levels of overseas immigration aligns with our core values. We are a lifestyle-focused people; we happily cherrypick bits and pieces of other cultures: “Welcome to Australia, mate … what have you got to eat?”

Initially, Anglo-Australians struggled with the pronunciation of terms like cappuccino and lasagne but eventually we mastered these and even trickier pronunciations such as gnocchi. The trend continued; by the late 2000s we were quietly proud of being able to authentically order dishes that contained quinoa.

And it isn’t just foodstuffs that Anglo-Australians have so readily adopted. I think the Italians have quietly (but effectively) smuggled the term “nonna” (grandmother) into common Australian usage.

Australians are (or were) great travellers as might be expected of any remote, prosperous, colonial society. We admire the effort, the commitment to family and the ­industry of immigrants.

The early Greek and Italian immigrants were quite famous for working multiple jobs in order to succeed in the New World. This work ethic formed part of an unspoken pact with their kids.

Mum and dad would work hard to provide opportunity for the next generation. But it was the next generation’s responsibility to repay that debt by succeeding so as to make their parents proud: “My son the doctor, my daughter the lawyer” being the repayment.

And Australia, as well as our burgeoning immigrant communities, were all the beneficiaries. It was this work ethic that helped catapult Australian prosperity to near US levels by the end of the 20th century.

Australia’s immigrants typically arrive via gateway cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne. The 2021 Census tracks the clustering of first-generation migrants as a kind of spillage from migrant hostels in places such as Sydney’s Villawood and Melbourne’s Springvale. And from there hard work and prosperity propels them further to quite aspirational enclaves on the city’s edges where the currency of the McMansion is proof of success.

Chinese migrants from Guangdon province enjoy yum cha in Sydney's Haymarket.
Chinese migrants from Guangdon province enjoy yum cha in Sydney’s Haymarket.

Sydney’s foreign-born resident hotspot is South Sydney-Haymarket on the CBD fringe where 83 per cent of the population was born overseas. This is a foreign student enclave. The same applies in Melbourne where this proportion rises to 82 per cent of the population in the north and west parts of the CBD.

Less intensive student enclaves mark smaller capitals. For Perth, the proportion of foreign-born residents tops out at 62 per cent in Northbridge (CBD fringe) while for the Adelaide CBD this proportion reaches 56 per cent. Brisbane is different. Here the highest proportion of foreign-born residents skips the CBD fringe entirely and settles upon the aspirational (mostly Chinese) suburbs of Robertson (63 per cent) and adjacent Macgregor (60 per cent).

Capital city maps tracking foreign-born residents show immigrants dominating Sydney’s west and southwest as well as Melbourne’s west, north and southeast. Overseas immigrants, workers and students do cluster; they connect into the community via family, church and/or language groupings. Later, and especially as the second generation arrives, there is dispersal to other parts of the city and to the regions.

Tahia Rahman and Harry Sidhu work on a lantern project while attending the Adult Migrant English Program at the Brisbane Mt Gravatt TAFE campus. Picture: Josh Woning.
Tahia Rahman and Harry Sidhu work on a lantern project while attending the Adult Migrant English Program at the Brisbane Mt Gravatt TAFE campus. Picture: Josh Woning.

Language can be a barrier for some. The most common languages spoken at home, according to the Census, apart from English (18 million) is Mandarin (685,000), Arabic (367,000), Vietnamese (321,000), Cantonese (295,000) and Punjabi (239,000).

These non-English languages are being challenged by rising forces, including, for example, Nepali (from Nepal), up 115 per cent over the five years to 2021, and Punjabi (from India), up 80 per cent over the same time frame. Speakers of Greek and Italian contracted over this period by 3 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively.

The extent of Australia’s inclusion of immigrants and others is also evidenced in rural and remote regions. So widespread and significant is Australia’s long-term immigrant culture that even in a town such as Horsham (population 17,000), 300km west of Melbourne, the Census measures 8 per cent of the population having been born overseas. Australia’s immigration is like a reservoir that splashes out of cities and spills to the regions.

In the US, the national reservoir is shallower. And so in Farmington (population 46,000) New Mexico, 300km northwest of the state’s largest city Albuquerque, the proportion of foreign-born residents tops out at 4 per cent.

Australians in every corner of the continent are exposed to the influences, and to the work ethic, of immigrant populations. And often there is much to admire about these newcomers. Australia is such a long way away; the landscape is so vast; the costs and the risks involved in getting here – even by due process – are so significant that it seems to instil a quiet determination to succeed, to prosper, to provide opportunity for the next generation.

These core values I think have made a mighty contribution to Australia, not just in terms of work and contribution to GDP but in ­diversifying and thus strengthening the Australian nation.

Bernard Salt is founder and executive director of The Demographics Group; research and data by data scientist Hari Hara Priya Kannan.

Bernard Salt is widely regarded as one of Australia’s leading social commentators by business, the media and the broader community. He is the Managing Director of The Demographics Group, and he writes weekly co… 


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2 responses to “The Force of Migrants in Australia Today: Figures & Insights

  1. EMAIL MEMO frxom Joe PAIVA in Adelaide, 2 August 2022:

    ” Anecdotal observations

    * The Majority of Taxi Drivers in Adelaide are from South Asia
    * Same with Security Officers in Hospitals,and other sites.
    * The Aged Care industry reveals the same trend, specifically hospitality servers, Carers, Cleaners.
    * The Indian diaspora is slowly but steadily expanding (temples, restaurants, religious festivals, celebrations)
    * Research on Facebook and social media is further evidence.

    If you consider my observations are incorrect, I would like to hear from you.”

    Joe Paiva

    OR Comment in public HERE.

  2. EMAIL COMMENT from ANNA LANGEN-ZUEFF in Adelaide, 2 August 2022:

    “His observations are totally correct Michael. But add ‘managing service stations too to the list.”

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