Before the arrival of the First Fleet, pre-1788, it was estimated that there had been 40,000-60,000 years of Indigenous settlement and civilisation by the First Nations people of Australia with a population estimated between 300,000 and 1.5 million.

The origin of settlement in Australia was as a penal colony, followed by free settlers.  The land acquired for the penal colony and settlement was never ceded by the traditional owners.

Between the 1500s and 1700s it is known that exploration of Australia was undertaken by Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish and English explorers as European colonial empires looked to expand their territories.

The First Fleet of 11 ships transported convicts to Australia arriving in Botany Bay in 1788.  It is indicated that in amongst the convict transport ships that would sail to Australia were people of diverse cultural backgrounds.  Included in the First Fleet were 11 convicts of African descent who were British loyalists during the American War of Independence and had retreated to Britain.  There would be others to arrive as convicts or as free settlers.

Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell and his private secretary Mr R.E. Armstrong at Australia House, London in June 1957. Courtesy National Archives of Australia NAA: A12111, 1/1947/20/1

The first group of free settlers arrived in Sydney on 16 January 1793 onboard the “Bellona”.  Numbering only 11, they were the forerunners of millions who would arrive in the next 200 odd years.  Whilst convicts had no choice, the free settlers exercised choice, albeit not without uncertainty and calculated risks.  Similar uncertainties and risks that were to be experienced by the post-World War 2 Displaced Persons, assisted and non-assisted migrants.

Assisted migration in Australia began in 1820.  Between 1831 and 1840 fifty percent of new arrivals were free immigrants.  Malays and Japanese worked in the pearl industry during the 1800s and in the 1830s New Zealand Māori’s worked in timber and flax trade.  In 1835 a bounty system was introduced which allowed private employers to select migrants and receive a government bounty for each approved person who came to Australia.

The first indentured labourers were forcibly brought from the Pacific Islands in 1847 by a heinous method that was known as a ‘blackbirding’.  The Chinese people were initially brought to Australia to supplement the diminishing labour force previously drawn from the convict population.

The Gold Rush between the 1850s and 1860s brought immigrants of multiple nationalities to Australia seeking their fortunes.  The economic downturn and severe drought of the 1890s stopped immigration to Australia.

From 1870 to 1900 the ‘Afghan’ cameleers became the backbone of transportation in the outback and contributed significantly to the Overland Telegraph and Trans-Australian Railway.

At the time of Federation in 1901, the State Governments administered their own migration programmes until the Commonwealth Government assumed overall responsibility after World War 1 and encouraged new settlers to Australia.  Federation also saw the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, the Pacific Islanders Act 1901 and the Naturalisation Act 1903.  These acts provided the framework for what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’ which was the method predominantly used to stop the people from China coming to Australia.  The dismantling of the ‘White Australia Policy” did not begin until the 1970s.

Between 1905 and 1914 free or part-paid passages were granted and free land was offered.  Prior to World War 1 most new settlers that arrived in Australia remained predominantly British.  World War 1 saw immigration to Australia come to a standstill.

Illawarra can claim its own early migrant settlers from diverse cultural backgrounds and more can be learned of them from the MHP research project by Zofia Laba, “Identifying Early Illawarra Pioneers from Diverse Cultural Backgrounds from Settlement to the 1940s”.  In addition to the histories of some of the Illawarra Early Pioneers you will find information on the number of Non-British migrants living in the Illawarra by country of birth or nationality 1856-1933 and census data for NSW 1846 to 1933 broken down into towns, municipalities, gender and countries of origin.  Places of historical and geographical significance in relation to the early pioneers from diverse cultural backgrounds can also be found in this publication.

Identifying Early Illawarra Pioneers from Diverse Cultural Backgrounds from Settlement to the 1940s

In the 1920s Australia experienced another influx of immigrants of which most arrived under assisted migration schemes, others through chain migration.  Between 1921 and 1930 the Empire Settlement Scheme brought about the migration of people from the British Empire of which Australia was the main participant.  Migration Agreements between the Dutch and Swiss Governments were entered into before the war.  The Great Depression of 1929 once again saw immigration numbers affected.

World War 2 halted migration to Australia but the existing rules remained ready for the post-war future.  Refugee and other foreigners were allowed to enter Australia just before and during the World War 2 but under restrictive conditions that included relatives already in Australia and those who had secured landing permits before the war.

What followed World War 2 was perhaps the largest and most successful immigration programme undertaken by Australia.  The immigration schemes in force prior to the war allowed the migration of people who qualified to come to Australia before any new immigration plans, agreement or schemes were introduced.

Since 1945, when Australia’s first immigration department was established, approximately seven million permanent migrants have settled in Australia (to 2017).  The post-World War 2 immigration programme initially sought skilled and semi-skilled migrants including their families and refugees and those in refugee-like situations because of World War 2.  In 1982 assisted migration had truly ended.  Major reforms in 1988-89 divided migration programmes into three streams: family, skilled and humanitarian.  There have been many more changes to these programmes since.

A more comprehensive account of the immigration schemes and agreements are available in the link below.


Significant Dates in Migration History

The First Nations People were living in Australia long before European settlement. It is likely that the population of First Nations People prior to European settlement was anywhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million. The First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 carrying more than 1,300 convicts and military personnel.


1793 The first group of 11 free settlers arrived in Sydney on the “Bellona”.
1793-1868 Nearly 200,000 free immigrants start a new life in Australia.
1832 The first assisted migrants arrived in Australia in 1832.
1850-1860 Gold Rush brings many Nationalities to Australia.
1880s Increase in immigration as Australia experiences a thriving economy.
1890s Immigration comes to a standstill as Australia suffers drought, a weakened economy, unemployment, poverty and industrial strikes.
1901 Federation of Australian and the Immigration Restriction Act.
1914-1918 World War 1 immigration virtually ceased.
1920-1930 Empire Settlement Act assisted migration scheme co-funded with the British Government.

Italians able to migrate to Australia under the wartime Anglo-Italian agreement.

Migrants from Greece increased following mass expulsion from Asia Minor in 1922-23.

Yugoslavs, 80% Croats, arrived in Australia between the two World Wars.

1925 The Immigration Act amended and allowed power to restrict entry to alien migrants of any race on the grounds of economic or assimilation reasons.  Quota extended to Greeks, Albanians, Yugoslavs, Estonians, Poles, Bulgarians and Czechs.
1929-1930s Great Depression migration to Australia ceased, did not resume until 1938.
1939-1945 World War 2
1945 Department of Immigration formally established.
1945-1959 Assisted passage schemes focussing on Britain as its primary source of immigrants. Limited immigration for non-British usually through sponsorship by relatives already living in Australia.
1947 Australia Government signs agreement with International Refugee Organisation to settle persons under Displaced Persons Scheme.
1948 Assisted passage offered to Maltese.  Maltese migrants were classified as ‘white British subjects’ for the purposes of Australia’s immigration policy.
Late 1948/1949 Waterboard MWSDB (Balts Camp).  By February 1949 there were 21 Balts living in the camp.
1949 Steelhaven Hostel (AIS).
1949 Unanderra Hostel No 1 operated from 1949 when it accepted the first batch of European persons (refugees) to arrive in Wollongong.  Removed in 1970s.
1950 Unanderra Hostel No 2 was added and removed after 1966.
1951 Italy and the Netherlands enter into assisted migration schemes to Australia.
1951 Berkeley Hostel operated 1951-1956, 1954-1967.  Huts removed 1972.
1951 Balgownie Hostel operated 1951-1982. (re-named Fairy Meadow 1957).
1952 Austria, Belgium, Greece, Spain and West Germany enter into assisted migration schemes to Australia.
1954 Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States enter into assisted migrant schemes to Australia.
1955 Operation Reunion reuniting in Australia families from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, USSR, former Yugoslavia.
1956 Hungarian refugees flee fighting in their country.
1963-66 Immigration restrictions on non-Europeans further relaxed. Over the course of a decade around 300,000 people would migrate from other countries.
1967 Turkey and the former Yugoslavia migration commenced.
1968 Czech refugees flee fighting in their country.
1972 White Australia Policy begins dismantling.
1973 Chile refugees flee to Australia following the overthrow of the elected government.
1975-1985 Refugees from Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) come to Australia after the end of the Vietnam War.
1980-1985 Solidarity movement/Marshall law in Poland allowed permanent entry to Australia for more than 25,000 Poland-born settlers, many arriving as refugees.
1988-1989 Major immigration reforms divides migration programme into three streams.
From 2000 Australia has taken in people from a broad range of countries including Iraq, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sudan, India and Sri Lanka.