Asian-born Australians may soon outnumber European-born counterparts: study

The number of Asians in Australia has almost doubled in a decade, from 1.03 million in mid-2000 to 2.1 million in the middle of last year, according to government statistics.

Pramod Kumar is part of a wave of immigration that has changed the face of Australia over the past decade.

Mr. Kumar is from Hyderabad in India’s northwest. He recently graduated from a private college in Melbourne after arriving in Australia’s second-largest city in 2008. He is in the process of applying for residency and has been given an 18-month bridging visa while his application works its way through the system.

“It’s been good,” Kumar says of his Australian experience. “I like Melbourne, but it is very expensive. You need to get a good job to get ahead here and I have not found something in my field yet. If I can get a good job, then life can be good.”

Asian-born Australians are on the brink of overtaking their European-born counterparts for the first time in the country’s history. More than 2 million Asians now call Australia home, according to new figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The number of Asians in Australia has almost doubled in a decade, from 1.03 million in mid-2000 to 2.1 million in the middle of last year. Around half – like Kumar – have come as students, the remainder as skilled migrants or through family reunification programs.

This in a country that formerly drafted immigration policy in an effort to protect against the "yellow peril."

To be sure, Australia still battles racism.

But the raw numbers cannot be denied: The number of Chinese-born people in Australia has more than doubled from 148,000 to 380,000 in the decade to June last year. The number of Indian-born residents has more than tripled during the same period, from 96,000 to 340,000. The biggest population lives in Melbourne where they have pushed out Italians to form the largest non-Anglo community.

“Close to 1 in 10 people in Australia are born in Asia,” says Bob Birrell, a director at Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research. “There is nothing like that in other countries including the US or Canada, which are considered highly multicultural. It is a massive shift and it has happened over a very short time span.”

The ABS data measured residents, meaning not all those counted will become citizens.

Indeed, Australia has moved to tighten student visa rules that previously provided a pathway to permanent residency. The changes have seen Indian student numbers decline sharply over the past 18 months. Still, close to 28 percent of Australians were born outside the country at the end of June last year, up from 23 percent a decade earlier. Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese populations have been among the largest immigrant communities.

Incredible transformation

It’s an incredible transformation for a country that ran a "white Australia" immigration policy until the early 1970s – a policy that overwhelmingly targeted Asians. In 1947, just 0.3 percent of Australians had been born in Asia. Last year, the figure stood at 9 percent. European-born Australians make up 10.8 percent of the country’s 22.6 million people – a long way from the 17 percent they represented several decades ago.

A string of attacks on Indian students in 2009 and 2010 shows the country still grapples with racism. But the rise in Asians calling Australia home has, by and large, been devoid of the political hysteria that surrounded Asian immigration in the 1990s.

Controversial politician Pauline Hanson gave birth to a new political force when, during her maiden address to the Australian Parliament in 1996, she warned that the country was “in danger of being swamped with Asians.”

Running on an anti-immigration platform, her One Nation party collected close to a quarter of the vote in the 1999 Queensland State elections. In April, Hanson ran for a seat in the parliament. She lost, garnering less than 2.5 percent of the vote.

Still controversial

That’s not to say the country’s immigration intake is devoid of controversy.

Criticism that immigrants fail to respect the "Australian way of life" still punctuates the public debate, although these days it is aimed at Middle Eastern and African immigrants rather than their Asian kin.

But the main concern, says Swinburne University of Technology sociologist Katharine Betts, has more to do with the number of people arriving – Australia is undergoing its fastest population boom since the end of World War II, with a growth rate that peaked in late 2008 at double the world average – rather than where they are coming from.

“The angst is really about population growth above race or ethnicity,” says Ms. Betts. “Over the past couple of years Australians have really become pretty distressed about the rapid growth in immigration, particularly in the major cities. They see that infrastructure has not kept up. They see clogged highways, overcrowded hospitals, public transport under pressure, and rising housing costs and there is a lot of concern about that.”

--- [Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized one of the study's findings.]

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