Whether Australia likes it or not, more immigrants are calling it home

Image: EPA/Dan Himbrechts
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“[W]e live in a world of increasing intolerance and disharmony in so many parts of the world,” said Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a speech yesterday (March 20) as he hailed Australia as “the most successful multicultural society in the world.”

Turnbull presented his “Multicultural Australia” report ahead of Harmony Day in Australia today (March 21). The day coincides with the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

“We are much more diverse in terms of the number of people who are born overseas or are children of parents who are born overseas than any comparable nation. Much more diverse than the United States… Only California has a percentage as a diversity that approaches Australia,” Turnbull went on to say.

According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 28% of Australia’s 23 million people were born overseas as of 2015, compared to 24% in 2005. Saudi Arabia beats Australia as the country with the largest overseas-born population, but the kingdom relies on a large number of temporary migrant workers. Some 45% of Australians have at least one parent who is a migrant or was born overseas, according to 2015 numbers from the OECD, which also hailed Australia’s success in integrating migrants.

Sydney is the most multicultural city in Australia, with 39% of its population born overseas as of 2011, according to the last ABS census. Meanwhile 35% of Melbourne’s population were born abroad, and 37% of Perth’s. In comparison, 37% of New York City’s people were born overseas, as of data from 2013. According to a 2011 census, 37% of people in London were born outside of the UK.

The overwhelming majority of immigrants to Australia still come from the UK and neighboring New Zealand, but immigrants from China and other Asian countries are increasing at a faster pace. According to the ABS, the most common language spoken at home in Australia other than English now is Mandarin, at 1.7% of the total population, followed by Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, and Vietnamese. Chinese-born immigrants now make up 2% of Australia’s population, compared to 5.1% for those born in the UK and 2.6% for New Zealand.

The ABS also notes that the level of education of immigrants has increased over the years. Among those who moved to Australia before 2001, 23% had a bachelor’s degree or above. That figure rose to 45% for people who immigrated to Australia after 2010.

Despite its diversity and relative success at integration, Australia hasn’t been entirely immune to the sort of sentiments against immigration that are raging in the US and other Western countries.

Those tensions were brought to the surface on this year’s Australia Day on Jan. 26—which commemorates the day that British colonizers arrived on the island, which had already for thousands of years been inhabited by aboriginals—illustrating how the country is still struggling to define its national identity. A billboard showing two girls wearing hijabs in Melbourne to celebrate the day was temporarily removed after the company behind the advertisement received threats. The ad was later restored and displayed across Australia following a crowdfunding campaign. On Australia Day, protestors campaigning to change the date from Jan. 26 and calling it “Invasion Day” instead in solidarity with the indigenous population clashed with police.

In addition, veteran far-right firebrand Pauline Hanson, apparently emboldened by the rise of her right-wing peers in Europe and in the US, has ratcheted up her anti-Muslim rhetoric in recent months—although her party’s recent poor performance in elections in the state of Western Australia suggest that her popularity has been kept in check so far.