Migration—Australian migration flows and population

Janet Phillips, Social Policy and Joanne Simon-Davies, Statistics and Mapping

Key issue
In February 2016, Australia’s estimated resident population (ERP) reached 24 million. More than one quarter (28.2%) of Australia’s resident population was born overseas—a level that is considered very high compared to most other OECD countries.

Australia’s population

Over the past ten years the annual population growth rate has been in a period of flux, reaching its peak in 2008 with the highest-ever recorded annual growth rate of 2.2%. In the following seven years the rate was in decline, dropping to 1.8% in 2009 and 1.4% in 2010, before briefly rising in 2012 to 1.8%. It is currently at 1.4% (as at December 2015).

Figure 1: Annual population growth rate: Australia, 1985 to December 2015

Annual population growth rate: Australia, 1985 to December 2015

The growth in the Australian population comprises two components:

  • natural increase—births minus deaths and
  • Net Overseas Migration (NOM)—the net gain or loss of the population through immigration to Australia and emigration from Australia. NOM includes both permanent and long-term (greater than 12 months) arrivals and departures.

The relative contribution these two components make has changed. For example, in 1985 the natural increase represented 58.5% of Australia’s population growth and NOM 41.5%. By 2015, natural increase represented only 45.7% of Australia’s population growth, with NOM at 54.3%. Interestingly, the NOM increase in recent years has been driven by people staying in Australia on long-term temporary visas, such as overseas students and temporary skills migrants (temporary migration is discussed in more detail elsewhere in this Briefing Book).

Figure 2: Components of Australia’s population, 1985 to 2015

Components of Australia’s population, 1985 to 2015

As Figure 2 shows, in 2008—the year Australia experienced its highest level of annual growth since the early 1970s (2.2%)—natural increase was at its lowest (33%) and NOM at 67%.

Migration flows

Since 1945, over 7.5 million people have settled in Australia, helping to establish it as one of the most culturally diverse and multicultural countries in the developed world. Currently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that 28.2% of Australia’s resident population was born overseas—a level that is considered very high compared to most other OECD countries.

Today, Australia’s migrants enter via one of two formal programs managed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP)—the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants, or the Humanitarian Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations. Each year, the Australian Government allocates places (quotas) for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia under these two programs. For several years the planning figure for the Migration Program has been set at a record high level of 190,000 places, with the majority of the available places allocated to the skill stream which is designed to attract migrants with desirable skills in order to relieve skill shortages in Australia.

Table 1: Migration Program visa grants since 2000–01

Year Family Skill Special Eligibility Total
2000–01 33 470 44 730 2 420 80 610
2001–02 38 090 53 520 1 480 93 080
2002–­03 40 790 66 050 1 230 108 070
2003–04 42 230 71 240 890 114 360
2004–05 41 740 77 880 450 120 060
2005–06 45 290 97 340 310 142 930
2006–07 50 080 97 920 200 148 200
2007–08 49 870 108 540 220 158 630
2008–09 56 366 114 777 175 171 318
2009–10 60 254 107 868 501 168 623
2010–11 54 543 113 725 417 168 685
2011–12 58 604 125 755 639 184 998
2012–13 60 185 128 973 842 190 000
2013–14 61 112 128 550 338 190 000
2014–15 61 085 127 774 238 189 097

Source: J Phillips and J Simon-Davies, Migration to Australia: a quick guide to the statistics, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

While Australia has always been one of the world’s major ‘immigration nations’, there have been some marked changes to the composition of its migration flows in recent years. Historically, the majority of Australia’s overseas-born residents came from the UK or Europe, but this pattern has shifted significantly. Although the majority of Australia’s overseas-born residents originate from the UK, the numbers are declining—making way for an increasing number who were born in Asia, particularly China and India. In terms of new (permanent) migrants, for the first time in Australia’s history, entrants from China overtook those from the UK in 2010–11. The following year, migrants from India took out the top spot for the first time. 

Another significant development in Australia’s migration story is the growth in the numbers of temporary migrants entering the country. Temporary migrants eligible to stay long-term (12 months or more) and work for varying periods of time include skilled (subclass 457) workers, overseas students and working holiday makers. In addition, under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, New Zealanders are free to visit, live and work in Australia. As a result, New Zealanders also feature highly in Australia’s settler arrival statistics, but it is important to note that they are not considered permanent migrants (or included in the Migration Program statistics) unless they apply for (and are granted) a permanent visa.

Further reading

J Phillips and J Simon-Davies, Migration to Australia: a quick guide to the statistics, Research paper series, 2015–16, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

ABS, Migration, Australia, cat. no. 3412.0, ABS, Canberra, 30 March 2016.


Back to Parliamentary Library Briefing Book

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.