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Population Composition: Asian-born Australians
Movement to Australia
Although limited earlier in the 20th century, immigration from Asian regions increased following the relaxation in the early 1970s of Australia's Immigration Restriction Act (1901). This period has also seen a shift in the focus of our economic and cultural links away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific region (see Australian Social Trends 1996, Expanding Links with Asia). Since 1981, most settler arrivals, including the Asian born, have entered Australia under the Migration or Humanitarian Programs. The balance are New Zealand citizens and others such as the overseas-born children of Australian citizens.
Source: ABS Estimated Resident Population by Country of Birth, 1981-2000.
The proportion of settler arrivals in Australia who were born in Asia increased from 24% in 1981 to 34% in 2000, peaking at 51% in 1991. Asian-born settler arrivals outnumbered those born in Europe for the first time in 1984.1
Which countries have Asian-born Australians come from?
Of the one million Asian-born Australians in 2000, just over half were born in Southeast Asia, almost a third in Northeast Asia and one fifth in Southern Asia. Since 1981 the populations from Southeast and Southern Asia have increased threefold, while that from Northeast Asia has increased fivefold.
In 2000, the three most common countries of birth of Asian-born Australians were Viet Nam (174,400), China (168,100) and the Philippines (123,000). Together these three groups comprised 43% of Asian-born and 10% of all overseas-born Australians.
The countries which make up the ten most common countries of birth of Asian-born Australians have remained virtually unchanged since 1981, with the population for each increasing over the past 20 years. However, some have grown faster than others.
ASIAN-BORN AUSTRALIANS: MAIN SOURCE COUNTRIES AND REGIONS OF BIRTH
Source: ABS Estimated Resident Population by Country of Birth, 1981-2000.
The population born in the Philippines has experienced the fastest growth, with the current population almost eight times that of 1981. In 2000, it was the third most common country of birth of Asian-born Australians. Many of the Philippines-born in Australia were women who married Australian men.2 Many also left the Philippines for Australia because of political instability during the period of martial law in the 1970s and 1980s. In some cases these immigrants were later followed by their families, to reunite in Australia.
The China-born population in Australia has increased sixfold since 1981. Most of this increase came in two waves and can be traced to the political situation in China in the late 1980s, when many Chinese in Australia studying on temporary visas were granted permanent residency. The second wave occurred with these people sponsoring their families to join them. The return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule may also have added to growth, because some Hong Kong-born may now name China as their country of birth.
The Viet Nam-born population in Australia quadrupled in the two decades to 2000, making Viet Nam the most common country of birth of Asian-born Australians. This increase was largely the result of the arrival of many refugees following the Viet Nam War, who subsequently brought out their families, and the recent resettlement of more refugees.
The Asian-born population is concentrated heavily in the 20-44 years age group. This is partly because of the large proportion of immigrants who arrive as young adults and the recent increase in immigration from Asian regions to Australia. The total overseas-born population includes groups from other regions who have been settling in Australia over a much longer period. As a result, the age distribution of the total overseas-born population is older than that of the Asian-born population.
AGE DISTRIBUTION, 2000
Source: ABS Estimated Resident Population by Country of Birth, 2000
Both the Asian-born and total overseas-born populations have low proportions of children, which can be partly attributed to many immigrants having their children once in Australia. These children are included in the Australian-born population.
While the median age of the total Asian-born population (35.9 years) is similar to the national median (35.2 years), there is considerable variation between individual Asian countries of birth. Populations which have been established in Australia over a longer period (such as those from Sri Lanka and India) have median ages over 40 years. On the other hand, the median ages of more recently arrived groups such as those born in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, are under 30 years. Their relatively young age profiles may also be related to the large numbers of students from these countries currently studying in Australia on a long-term basis (12 months or more).
Females outnumber males for most countries of birth of Asian-born Australians, to a greater extent than in the total population. This is most evident among the Philippines-born, where the males are outnumbered by almost two to one. The populations from Singapore and Malaysia also have relatively low proportions of males.
SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS, ASIAN-BORN AND ALL AUSTRALIANS, 2000
Where do they live?
Asian-born Australians are highly urbanised. In 1999, 91% of the Asian-born people who arrived in Australia after 1980 and were aged 15 and over, lived in capital cities, compared with 84% of all overseas-born, and 63% of all Australians in this age group. Those born in Singapore and Viet Nam were most likely to live in the capital cities (98%). Those born in Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan had the highest proportions living outside the capital cities, ranging from 19% to 27%.
New South Wales and Victoria both have high proportions of the Asian-born population. Almost half of Asian-born Australians aged 15 years and over, and who arrived after 1980, lived in NSW, where the most common countries of birth were China, Viet Nam and the Philippines. Victoria's Asian-born population is also large (over a quarter of Australia’s Asian-born population) and comes mainly from China, Viet Nam and Sri Lanka.3
USUAL REGION OF RESIDENCE, ASIAN-BORN AND ALL AUSTRALIANS(a), 1999
Source: ABS 1999 Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Migrants Survey.
Proficiency in spoken English
People's proficiency in English can affect their ability to access services and education, find employment and participate more fully in Australian society. However, continuing the use of one's home language can also be important, for reasons of cultural continuity and identity.
In 1999, 31% of Asian-born Australians aged 15 years and over who arrived after 1980 usually spoke only English at home. Many of these people were born in India, Malaysia and the Philippines. This may be linked to greater use of English and access to higher education in their country of birth, as well as their propensity to live with Australians who speak only English.
Almost 24% of the Asian-born population who did not usually speak English at home reported they could not speak English well and a further 7% did not speak any English. One third of those who either did not speak any English, or could not speak English well, were born in Viet Nam. Of all Viet Nam-born, 20% spoke no English. Consistent with this, they also had the lowest proportion who usually spoke English at home at just 2%.3 This could be explained in part by the high proportion of Viet Nam-born in Australia who have come as refugees or to reunite with their families, rather than having entered via the skilled stream, for which English language proficiency is one of the criteria.
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Overseas Arrivals and Departures Australia, cat. no. 3401.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1997, Migration Australia, 1995-96, cat. no. 3412.0, ABS, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Migrants Survey, November 1999.