3416.0 - Perspectives on Migrants, 2009  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 15/04/2009   
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Australia's population of over 21.5 million (ABS 2008) is culturally diverse, with origins in over 200 nations. This diversity is largely the result of migration. Today around 44 per cent of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one overseas born parent (ABS 2006).

This article will review the recent trends in migration to Australia, specifically with regard to a migrant's visa class category. It aims to provide a broad description of Australia's permanent migration program, as well as presenting the changes in patterns of migration by eligibility category. Using the latest available migrant statistics, data will be included on the migration program including the major streams of Family and Skill, the Humanitarian program as well as New Zealand citizens. Focus is also given to the granting of onshore residence outcomes.

A variety of data were used in the preparation of this article, most of which is available from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) website: http://www.immi.gov.au/.


Over the past 60 years Australia's population has increased from about 7 million, at the end of World War II (with around 90 per cent of people born in Australia) to over 21.5 million in September 2008 (with around 75 per cent born in Australia) (DIAC, Fact sheet 4). This population growth has been achieved through natural increase (i.e. the excess of births over deaths) and net overseas migration (NOM, i.e. the number of people permanently arriving into the country minus those permanently departing). While natural increase has been the main source of population growth through most of the 20th century, net overseas migration now contributes over half of Australia's population growth (ABS 2008).

The expansion of Australia's economy over the past 15 years has been associated with a need for a greater pool of skilled labour (RBA 2007). This has resulted in the planned intakes of the migration program reaching record levels. The focus of this program has shifted from family and reunion migration to economic and skilled migration. This trend is reflected in the changing proportions of visa grants (outcomes) with respect to the major visa categories with Skilled visas accounting for 68% of the 2007-08 Migration Program and Family visas, 31%. These changes will be the focus of discussion in later sections.

In a global context, demographic shifts, demand for labour and resources means that Australia is competing for migrants. In addition, there has been a rise in temporary and cyclical migration as migrants move to where the work is. The growth of temporary migration and particularly the conversion to permanent residency of those already in Australia, has been one of the major changes in migration patterns in recent years (Parliament Library 2005). Onshore residence outcomes will be discussed later.


Immigration to Australia is administered by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and entry into the country is broadly divided into two separate programs, Permanent and Temporary. All applicants for migration are assessed against the requirements set out in the Migration Act 1958 and Migration Regulations and these programs regulate the flow of people allowed entry into Australia.

An exception to the planned program are New Zealand (NZ) citizens who enter using a Special Category Visa (SCV), introduced in 1994. The level of NZ entrants is not capped under the planning levels but entrants are included as permanent additions and settler arrivals to Australia, as long as there is an intention to settle for 12 months or more. Whilst this article presents data relating to NZ settlers in the Permanent Migration totals, the focus is largely on the Migration and Humanitarian programs.

In all cases of data relating to migration, the individual applying for entry into Australia is regarded as the primary applicant. It is the primary applicant that must satisfy the conditions of the visa being applied for, according to the Migration Regulations. A secondary applicant is a member of the family unit of the primary applicant, i.e. their spouse, an interdependent partner, a dependent child or a dependent relative of the primary applicant or spouse. In terms of counting 'grants' or 'arrivals', the primary applicant and any accompanying secondary applicants are categorised under the primary applicant's visa category. For example, for a family in which the primary individual is granted a Skilled visa and the applicant has a spouse and two dependent children, this will be reported as four skilled grants in the migration program outcomes data. Similarly when they reach Australia there are an additional four settler arrivals on a skilled visa. For more on this topic see Migrant Characteristics and Settlement Outcomes of Secondary Applicants, a related article in this series.

Permanent Program

The Permanent Program is the main mechanism for permanent entry into Australia for people born overseas. Within the Permanent Program, individuals can enter under the Migration Program, or the Humanitarian Program. The three streams of the planned Migration Program are Family, Skill and Special Eligibility:
  • Family stream enables the primary applicant to be sponsored by a relative who is an Australian citizen or a permanent resident of Australia;
  • Skill stream is designed to target migrants who will contribute to Australia’s economic growth where there is demand in Australia for particular occupational skills, outstanding talents or business skills; and
  • Special Eligibility stream covers former residents who have maintained ties with Australia and certain people subject to resolution of status.

For more detailed explanations of these categories, refer to the glossary.

Under the Humanitarian Program, permanent resettlement is offered for refugees and others in special humanitarian need. The Humanitarian Program responds to the needs of those affected by events in their homeland.

Each financial year the permanent migration planning levels (DIAC, Fact Sheet 20) are set and capped according to the Federal Government's priorities. The actual number of visas granted each year under the Migration Program are reported as Migration Program outcomes (DIAC, Migration Program Statistics). The number of permanent visas granted each year for the period from 1984-85 to 2007-08 is shown below, excluding NZ settlers. The total number of permanent visas granted has increased steadily over the past ten years.

Permanent Migration Outcomes, Migration and Humanitarian Visa Eligibility: 1984-85 to 2007-08
Graph: Permanent Migration Outcomes, Migration and Humanitarian Visa Eligibility, 1984-85 to 2007-08

Permanent visas granted by category for the last ten years (DIAC 2000 to 2005-06, 2007, 2008c; DIAC 2008a) is tabled below. A total of 206,135 permanent visas were issued in 2007-08, a 9% increase on the previous year and more than double the levels of 1997-98. The table includes the components of permanent migration with visas granted under the Migration Program and the Humanitarian Program as well as the non-program migration of New Zealand citizens.

PERMANENT VISA OUTCOMES: 1997-98 to 2007-08


Permanent Migration
98 538
103 966
111 750
136 610
127 083
136 959
146 928
155 617
180 865
189 524
206 135
Migration Program
67 090
67 930
70 180
80 620
93 090
108 070
114 360
120 060
142 940
148 200
158 630
Skill stream
34 670
35 000
35 330
44 730
53 520
66 050
71 240
77 880
97 340
97 920
108 540
Family stream
31 310
32 040
32 000
33 470
38 090
40 790
42 230
41 740
45 290
50 080
49 870
Special eligibility stream
1 110
2 850
2 420
1 480
1 230
Humanitarian Program
12 055
11 356
9 960
13 733
12 349
12 525
13 851
13 178
14 144
13 017
13 014
Non-program Migration
NZ settlers(a)
19 393
24 680
31 610
42 257
21 644
16 364
18 717
22 379
23 781
28 307
34 491

(a) Estimated by permanent arrivals of NZ citizens having the intention to settle for 12 months or more.
Source: DIAC 2008b, 2002-03 to 2006-07; DIAC 2008c, 2007, 2000 to 2005-06

The Migration Program outcome of 158,630 migrants for 2007-08 was a record high level and significantly above the previous peak observed in the late 1980s (124,700 migrants in 1988-89). The program also shows ten years of growth since 1997-98. The outcome for 2007-08 was 158,630 migrants, a 7% increase on the previous year 2006-07 (148,200) and more than a two-fold increase on the 1997-98 level (67,090).

The planned Migration Program level for 2008-09 was even higher at 190,300 - comprising 42,500 Family stream grants and 133,500 Skill stream grants. Due to a worsening global economic situation however, the Government subsequently announced that there would be a 14 per-cent cut in the 2008-09 Permanent Skilled Migration Program intake.

The level of visa grants for Humanitarian entry has, over the past decade, ranged from 9,960 in 1999-2000 to 14,144 in 2005-06. The level for 2007-08 is 13,014 Humanitarian migrant visas and the planning levels for 2008-09 is 13,500 visas.

Permanent Migration Outcomes by Visa Eligibility

Permanent Migration outcomes by eligibility stream (visa category) for the period 1984-85 through to 2007-08 are shown in the following figure. Of particular interest is the increasing intake of Skill stream migrants since 1997-98.

Permanent Migration Outcomes, Visa Grants by Eligibility Stream: 1984-85 to 2007-08
Graph: Permanent Migration Outcomes, Visa Grants by Eligibility Stream, 1984-85 to 2007-08

Between the years of 1984-85 and 1996-97 the highest proportion of visa grants in each year was under the Family stream, although this varied from a high of 81% in 1984-85 to a low of 55% in 1990-91. In 1997-98, the number and proportion of grants issued under the Skill stream was greater than those issued under the Family stream (52% and 47% of the Migration Program respectively) for the first time. Since that time the proportion of visa outcomes under the Skill stream has continued to increase and in 2007-08 was at a record level of 68%. This equates to 108,540 places in the Skill stream, an 11 percentage point increase on the previous year. In terms of Skill sub-categories, 'Employer Nomination Scheme' and 'Independent' streams account for the major components of the Skill category (45% and 43% respectively). For further details see Skilled Migration, a related article in this series.

Whilst the relative share of Family visas has declined since 1997-98, the overall number of Family visa grants has increased in absolute terms, rising from 31,310 in 1997-98, peaking at 50,080 in 2006-07, to 49,870 in 2007-08. This amounts to an almost 60% increase over the ten year period. Partner visas, including Spouse, Prospective Marriage (fiancé) and Interdependency visa subclasses account for 80% (39,931) of Family visa places in 2007-08.

Onshore Residence Outcomes

Although the majority of applicants for migration apply offshore i.e. from outside Australia, there is an increasing number of people who apply for permanent residence onshore i.e. while they are already in Australia on a certain temporary resident visas. A temporary resident visa can therefore be a pathway to securing permanent residence in Australia. For example a person living in Australia on a temporary spouse visa will be granted a permanent spouse visa provided that they can demonstrate their relationship is genuine. Similarly a person working full-time on a long stay business (subclass 457) visa can be sponsored for permanent residence under the Employer Nomination Scheme.

For interest on the subject of Temporary migration, refer to Temporary Migrants in Australia, a related article in this series.

The number of onshore visas granted to temporary entrants (both short and long term) has increased since 2000, particularly on the basis of skill. Provisions have been introduced so that overseas students completing their courses in Australia can apply onshore and be granted permanent residence through the General Skilled visa category, without the need to leave Australia (DIAC 2008b). This development, combined with the general rise in the number of temporary skilled workers applying for permanent residency has resulted in a three-fold increase in onshore visa grants from 15,282 in 1997-98 to 54,400 in 2007-08. This figure represents over one-third (34%) of the Migration Program outcomes in 2007-08. The level of both onshore and offshore outcomes for the years 1997-98 to 2007-08 (DIAC 2008) is shown below.

Migration Program Outcomes, Offshore and Onshore: 1997-98 to 2007-08
Graph: Migration Program Outcomes, Offshore and Onshore, 1997-98 to 2007-08

Onshore Residence Outcomes by Visa Eligibility

The large increase in the number of onshore visas granted is largely the result of a five-fold increase in the number of onshore Skilled visas granted, from a level of 7,648 in 2000-01 to 42,065 in 2007-08. The growth within the onshore Skill stream is largely attributed to the introduction of the Independent category, in 2001-02. The Skill sub-categories of Employer Nomination Scheme and Independent account for the majority of onshore skill outcomes (45% and 43% respectively in 2007-08). Within the onshore Family stream, Spouse and Fiancés sub-category typically contributes between 80% and 90% of the onshore Family outcomes. The following figure displays the onshore outcomes by visa category for the major categories of the Migration Program (non-humanitarian).

Onshore residence outcomes, By Visa Eligibility: 2000-01 to 2007-08
Graph: Onshore Residence Outcomes, By Visa Eligibility, 2000-01 to 2007-08

New Zealand Citizens

Since the 1920s, there has been virtually unrestricted movement between the people of Australia and New Zealand (DIAC, Fact Sheet 17). Under the 1973 Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement both Australians and New Zealand citizens have had reciprocal right to visit, work and live in either country, without the need to apply for authority to enter. More recently, changes made to the Migration Act 1958 in 1994 resulted in the legal requirement for all non-citizens to hold visas resulting in the Special Category Visa (SCV) being introduced for New Zealand citizens. This change had minimal practical impact but administratively a SCV would be electronically recorded and the passport stamped with a date of arrival into Australia. Statistically, New Zealand citizens are not counted as part of Australia's annual planned migration program but the figures are included in the Settler Arrivals reports and net overseas migration (when the intention is to arrive or depart for more than a 12-month period).

As shown in the Permanent Visa outcomes (Figure 2), the level of New Zealand citizens arrivals has over the past decade, ranged from a low of 16,364 in 2002-03 to a high of 42,257 in 2000-01. There were 34,491 New Zealand citizens entering Australia in 2007-08. This represented a 22% increase on the previous year and 23% of all settler arrivals.


ABS 2006, A Picture of the Nation: the Statistician's Report on the 2006 Census, cat. no. 2070.0, ABS, Canberra.

ABS 2008, Australian Demographic Statistics, September 2008, cat. no. 3101.0, ABS, Canberra.

DIAC 2008a, Annual Report 2007-08, <http://www.immi.gov.au/about/reports/annual/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 1, viewed 10 November 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 4, viewed 10 November 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 17, viewed 10 November 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 20, viewed 22 October 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 24, viewed 22 October 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 29, viewed 22 October 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC, Fact Sheet 60, viewed 6 November 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/>.

DIAC 2008b, Immigration Update 2007-08, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/>.

DIAC 2002-03 to 2006-07, Immigration Update 2002-03 to 2006-07, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/>.

DIAC, Migration Program Statistics, viewed 22 October 2008, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/statistics/statistical-info/visa-grants/migrant.htm>.

DIAC 2008c, Population Flows - Immigration Aspects 2007-08, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/>.

DIAC 2007, Population Flows - Immigration Aspects 2006-07, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/>.

DIAC (2000 to 2005-06), Population Flows - Immigration Aspects, 2000 edition to 2005-06, <http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/>.

Parliamentary Library 2005, Department of Parliamentary Services, Research Note no. 48, 10 May 2005, <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2004-05/05rn48.htm>.

Reserve Bank of Australia 2007, Bulletin, September 2007, <http://www.rba.gov.au/PublicationsAndResearch/Bulletin/bu_sep07/immig_lab_supply.html>.

Permanent Migration Program descriptions

The Permanent Migration Program is the main mechanism for permanent entry into Australia for people born overseas. The program comprises over 300 sub-classes of visas with the list of eligible visas changing regularly as a result of legislative and regulatory changes. In general terms the rules for each category (DIAC, Fact sheet 1) are:
  • Family - The family stream allows for the migration of immediate family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents or eligible New Zealand citizens. Entry is granted on the basis of the family relationship to the sponsoring relative and generally is applicable to spouses or fiancés, children, parents and/or other family members. Places are also available for orphan relatives, aged dependent relatives, carers and remaining relatives;
  • Skill - The skill stream consists of over 60 sub-classes of categories for prospective migrants. Most migrants must satisfy a point test, and have particular work skills that are in demand. They can be nominated by particular employers, have other links to Australia or have successful business skills and/or significant capital to bring to Australia to establish a business of benefit to this country;
  • Special Eligibility - This stream covers former residents who have maintained ties with Australia and certain people subject to resolution of status. The number of visas issued in this category is generally in the order of several hundred (300 planned in the 2008-09 year);
  • Humanitarian Program - Migrants under the Humanitarian Program are persons designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner. This can include those suffering persecution or substantial discrimination amounting to gross violations of their human rights in their home country. The humanitarian program comprises of two components: off-shore resettlement for people in humanitarian need; and on-shore protection for those already in Australia who either arrived on temporary visas or in an unauthorised manner and who claim Australia's protection.