Waves of migration to Australia

Since the First Fleet dropped anchor in 1788, close to ten million settlers have moved from across the world to start a new life in Australia, eight million of them since the end of the Second World War.

Their arrival was driven partly by pull factors in Australia - such as gold discoveries or free land - but much more by push factors in their home countries - such as famine, religious persecution or economic hardship.

The settlers have arrived distinctive 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 are also examples of push factors.

Collectively these migrants have helped shape the unique British-based but now multicultural society on the edge of Asia that we call Australia.

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 also arriving.

Religious persecution

In 1838 German Lutherans opposed to church taxes begin arriving in Australia in search of religious freedom and new economic opportunities. 

Potato famine in Ireland

Between 1845 and 1852, the population of Ireland was reduced by nearly 25 per cent due to starvation, disease and mass emigration. A potato disease known as ‘blight’ decimated the potato crop on which one-third of the Irish population depended. One million died and another million emigrated, tens of thousands of them to Australia. 


In 1901 the Chinese were the third largest migrant group in Australia after the British and Germans.

Thousands of Chinese people came to Australia during the 1850s gold rush. 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

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 II, 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. Many more Asians, however, arrived by plane.

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 were 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.


Since the end of the Second World War Australia has been accepting refugees from war, conflict or persecutions. The humanitarian settlement program has accepted people from more than a dozen conflicts.

In the 1950s and 60s, Australia accepted refugees from eastern bloc countries, in the 1970s it was Vietnam, Chile and Lebanon. In the 1980s refugees from Afghanistan and Africa came; and from the Balkans, Somalia and Rwanda.

In the 1990s and 2000s, it was South Sudan, Syria and Iraq that were the source of refugees settling in Australia.

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