4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
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Contents >> Population >> Population Growth: Changes in immigration intake

Population Growth: Changes in immigration intake

Since 1983-84, Family immigration has been the largest component of the immigration program.

Australia has a long history of immigration. Clearly, all non-Indigenous Australians can, in principle, trace their family back to immigrants at some time during the relatively short period since settlement in 1788.

The current immigration visa classification system allows people who have been granted permanent visas to enter and settle permanently in Australia. The main visa categories encompass family immigration, skilled immigration, humanitarian immigration, and special eligibility immigration (a small component that includes former residents and citizens of Australia). New Zealand citizens intending to settle in Australia do not require a visa and are consequently not part of the visa-based immigration program.1 However, they are included among counts of settler arrivals. (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Birthplaces of Australia's settlers for a brief history of immigration policy in Australia).

At the beginning of each financial year the Commonwealth Government sets the overall planning level for the migration program and the humanitarian program in consultation with State, Territory and some local governments, as well as business, industry, trade union, ethnic, environmental and other groups.2 The actual number of settler arrivals is usually within 5% of the planning level. However, a match is not expected since some people will not use their visa, others will not migrate to Australia immediately and some applicants may already be in Australia. Also settler arrivals include people who already have a right to enter Australia - mainly New Zealand citizens.

The eligibility criteria applied to potential settlers vary with the type of application. Family immigration settlers must meet selection criteria which mainly relate to the rules that define who is in a family and how far a family extends. Applicants wishing to be considered as skilled immigrants must undertake a points test that considers educational attainment, skill levels and English language skills, and which favours younger ages. Humanitarian applicants are assessed on the basis of their refugee status or experience of persecution or discrimination.

Settler arrivals

Settler arrivals comprise people arriving in Australia who hold permanent visas, regardless of stated intended period of stay. It includes New Zealand citizens who indicate an intention to settle and other people who are eligible to settle, such as overseas-born children of Australian citizens.

Data on settler arrivals are compiled on a financial year basis. However, for ease of display, graphs are labelled with the year ending the financial year (i.e. 1983-84 is labelled 1984).

Between 1982 and 1997, the period covered by this review, visa categories have changed slightly. The allocation of settler arrivals to visa categories has been aligned so as to match past categories with current categories as closely as possible. Comparison between years is indicative only.


(a) Comprised mainly of settler arrivals from New Zealand, but includes a number of settler arrivals under other non-program immigration and a small number of special eligibility settler arrivals.

The changing category mix
Since 1982-83 the total annual number of settlers has varied between a maximum of 145,316 in 1988-89 to low points of 69,808 in 1983-84 and 69,768 in 1993-94. These changes were particularly influenced by economic conditions. Both the two low points followed recessions (1982-83 and 1990-92).

Family immigration has been the largest immigrant category since 1983-84. Since that time family immigrants have represented over 40% of all settlers in each year. Prior to 1983-84, skilled immigration was the largest category but the impact of the recession during 1982-83 saw its proportion decline from 41% in 1982-83 to 11% of settlers by 1984-85. In addition, a change of Commonwealth Government in 1983 resulted initially in a shift in immigration policy away from an emphasis on skilled labour to a greater focus on family reunion.3 However, from the mid 1980s, the proportion of skilled immigrants increased steadily, reaching 40% in 1990-91. The 1990-92 recession again saw the number of skilled immigrants decrease rapidly, so that by 1993-94 they represented just 18% of settler arrivals.

Family immigration

Family immigration comprises the following categories under which a potential immigrant can be sponsored by a relative who is an Australian citizen or permanent resident.
  • Preferential - made up of spouse, prospective marriage partner, child, adopted child, parent, aged dependent relative, remaining relative, orphan relative, special need relative.
  • Concessional - made up of non-dependant child, non-dependant brother or sister, non-dependant niece or nephew and parent of working age.

(a) Based on stated intention at time of arrival only, settlers may have
actually settled in another State.
    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update.
    (a) Includes dependent children and child for adoption.

    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update.

    Family immigration
    The main aim of the family immigration category is to facilitate the reunion of close family members. Immigrants who have been resident in Australia for a specified time, normally two years, can sponsor family members to migrate to Australia.

    Since 1982-83 the number of settlers arriving each financial year under the family immigration category rose from 26,952 to 69,571 in 1987-88. From then on the number fluctuated but generally declined, standing at 36,490 in 1996-97. Over the same period the types of family members being sponsored also varied. Those sponsored under the preferential category, primarily dependent relatives, formed 77% of family immigrants in 1996-97 compared with 43% in 1987-88.

    The majority of preferential family immigrants were spouses or fiance(e)s. Between 1982-83 and 1994-95 the proportion of spouses and fiance(e)s among preferential family immigrants increased from 55% to 72%. Conversely, the proportion who were parents decreased from 32% to 15% over the same period. Since 1994-95 the trend has reversed with the proportion of parents increasing to 22% in 1996-97 and the proportion of spouses and fiance(e)s decreasing to 66%.

    The majority of settlers in the family category intended to settle in New South Wales or Victoria. This reflects the large population and economic dominance of these States which have attracted immigrants in the past. These immigrants have, in turn, sponsored other family members, starting a chain of immigration to the same State. However, since the early 1990s preferences in intended State of residence have been shifting in favour of New South Wales while Victoria has received a diminishing share of immigrants. The proportions of immigrants intending to settle in Western Australia and South Australia have also been declining.

    Since 1982-83 there have been distinct shifts in the countries of origin of family immigrants. In 1982-83, 34% of family immigrants came from the United Kingdom or Ireland and a further 19% came from Europe or the former USSR. By 1996-97 these proportions had decreased to 15% and 13% respectively.

    This decrease in the proportion of family immigrants from European countries was associated with an increase in settler arrivals from Asia. By 1990-91, 36% of family immigrants came from Southeast Asia (mainly from Viet Nam, the Philippines and Malaysia). In 1996-97 family immigrants from Northeast Asia (mainly from China and Hong Kong) formed the largest group, 23% of family immigrants, followed by those from Southeast Asia, 18%.


    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update.

    Skilled immigration

    Skilled immigration comprises a number of categories for prospective immigrants where there is a demand in Australia for their particular occupational skills:
    • Employer nominations of highly skilled people by employers in Australia who have been unable to find or train skilled workers in Australia for the position.
    • Independent for unsponsored applicants whose education, skills and ready employability will contribute to the Australia economy.
    • Business skills for people with established business skills and a genuine commitment to owning and managing a business in Australia.
    • Distinguished talents for people who have an outstanding record of achievement in a profession, occupation, the arts or sports.


    (a) Does not show distinguished talent category which represented less then 1% of skilled immigrants.

    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update.

    Skilled immigrants
    Since settlement of Australia, immigration has been an important source of skilled labour for growth in the Australian workforce. After World War II, many skilled and semi-skilled immigrants entered Australia and found work in the booming manufacturing and construction industries. The current intention of the skilled immigration program is to attract immigrants with specific skills that will benefit the Australian community and economy.

    The intake of skilled immigrants has varied considerably since 1982-83, reaching as high as 48,421 in 1990-91 (40% of all settlers in that year) and as low as 8,856 in 1984-85 (only 11% of settlers in that year). This reflects a change of policy following the 1982-83 recession that emphasised training resident workers rather than admitting skilled immigrant workers, though still using the skilled immigration scheme to fill skill gaps.4

    In general, the majority of skilled immigrants over the period 1982-83 to 1996-97 were in the independent category, though the proportion has varied considerably over this time. In 1985-86 the proportion of skilled immigrants that were in the independent category had decreased to 37% (from a high of 80% in 1982-83) while skilled immigrants under the employer nomination scheme had increased to 49%. However, this pattern then reversed again - the proportion of independent skilled immigrants increased while that of employer nomination immigrants decreased. Between 1982-83 and 1996-97 the proportion of skilled immigrants in the business skills category rose from 3% to 28%.

    In 1996-97 business immigrants were particularly concentrated in the managers and administrators occupation group (89%). Independent immigrants were mainly professionals and tradepersons (61% and 15% respectively). Employer nomination immigrants were mainly professionals or managers and administrators (52% and 17% respectively).

    Although family immigrants are most likely to be influenced in their intended State of residence by the location of their sponsors, skilled immigrants, unless already employed under the employer nomination scheme, may have greater freedom to choose a location favourable to employment or establishing a business. Skilled immigrants have increasingly preferred New South Wales as their intended State of residence (increasing from 33% of skilled immigrants in 1982-83 to 45% in 1996-97). Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland have also been favoured destinations. In 1996-97 they had an even share of about 16% each, though their share has varied in the past.

    Changes in the country of birth of skilled immigrants were similar to those that occurred among family immigrants, namely a decline in the proportion coming from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the rest of Europe and an increase in the proportion coming from Asian countries. Northeast Asia has become an important source of skilled immigrants (29% of skilled immigrants in 1996-97).


    Skilled immigration category

    Occupation prior to immigration

    Managers & administrators
    Salespersons & personal service workers
    Plant & machine operators & drivers
    Labourers & related workers

    (a) Employer nomination scheme.

    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Immigration Update, June Quarter 1997.


    Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update.

    The humanitarian program

    The humanitarian program comprises:
    • The refugee program which provides protection for people outside their country fleeing persecution.
    • Special humanitarian program for people suffering persecution in their own country and for people who have left their country because of significant discrimination amounting to a gross violation of human rights.
    • The special assistance category embraces groups determined by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to be of special concern to Australia and in real need but who do not fit within other humanitarian categories. This program also assists those internally and externally displaced people who have close family links in Australia.


    Source: Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

    Humanitarian immigrants
    Australia's humanitarian immigration program has two main aims. The first is to assist the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle refugees based on its assessment of world-wide resettlement needs. The second is to assist people overseas who are suffering discrimination or are in other vulnerable situations and who have close links with Australia.2

    The humanitarian stream is the smallest of Australia's immigration categories. In 1996-97 there were 9,886 humanitarian immigrants, representing 12% of settler arrivals in that year. Between 1982-83 and 1996-97, the number of humanitarian immigrants has been as high as 17,054 (18% of settler arrivals in 1982-83) and as low as 7,157 (7% of settler arrivals in 1991-92). This variability is a result of the random nature of international events that trigger refugee emigration, such as warfare, revolution and political instability.

    Special assistance categories were created in 1992 to cater for applicants who would not be categorised as refugees by the United Nations. Immigrants in these categories were mainly from countries that had previously been important sources of refugees, such as the former USSR, former Yugoslavia, Timor and Lebanon.5 In 1996-97, 44% of humanitarian immigrants were in the special assistance category (4,394 people), 34% were refugees (3,372 people) and 21% were in the special humanitarian category (2,120 people).

    Because humanitarian immigrants come from places where war and other events have displaced people, the changes in their countries of birth over time reflect the prevailing troubled regions of the world. The war in Viet Nam created a huge movement of refugees across the world. In 1982-83 about three quarters of humanitarian immigrants to Australia came from Southeast Asia.

    More recently, the civil war in former Yugoslavia and the opening up of the USSR has made Europe and the former USSR the most common region of birth among humanitarian immigrants (46% of all humanitarian immigrants in 1996-97).

    Humanitarian immigrants were more likely than other immigrants to give their intended State of residence as NSW or Victoria (75% of humanitarian immigrants in 1996-97). This reflects the importance of Sydney and Melbourne as reception areas for refugees due to their historical importance as ports and the consequent availability of hostel facilities.


    Source: Australian Immigration Consolidated Statistics and Immigration Update, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.


    1 Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1983, Review of Australia's Demographic Trends 1983, AGPS, Canberra.

    2 Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1997, Population Flows: Immigration Aspects, DIMA, Canberra.

    3 Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, 1990, The chains that bind: Family Reunion Migration to Australia in the 1980s, AGPS, Canberra.

    4 Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, 1994, The Rationale for Australia's Skilled Immigration program, AGPS, Canberra.

    5 Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, 1994, Exile or Refugee? The settlement of refugee, humanitarian and displaced immigrants, AGPS, Canberra.

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