Migration to Australia: a quick guide to the statistics

14 May 2014

This paper provides a summary of some of the key statistics on permanent and temporary migration to Australia.


Australia is considered to be one of the world’s major ‘immigration nations‘ (together with New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America (USA). Since 1945, when the first federal immigration portfolio was created, over 7.5 million people have settled here and Australia’s overseas-born resident population—estimated to be 27.7 per cent of the population in June 2013—is considered high compared to most other OECD countries.

Permanent migrants enter Australia via one of two distinct programs—the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants or the Humanitarian Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations. The Australian Government allocates places, or quotas, each year for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia under these two programs.

Until very recently, the United Kingdom (UK) had always been the primary source country for permanent migration to Australia. However, for the first time in the history of Australia, China surpassed the UK as Australia’s primary source of permanent migrants in 2010–11. Since then, China and India have continued to provide the highest number of permanent migrants. New Zealand (NZ) citizens also feature highly in the number of settler arrivals, but they are not counted under Australia’s Migration Program unless they apply for (and are granted) a permanent visa.

Over the decades, migration program planning numbers have fluctuated according to the priorities and economic and political considerations of the government of the day. However, it is important to note that the Australian Government’s immigration policy focus has changed markedly since 1945, when attracting general migrants (primarily from the UK) was the priority, to focussing on attracting economic migrants and temporary (skilled) migrants. Currently the planning figure for the Migration Program is 190,000 places, with skilled migrants comprising the majority.

One of the most significant developments in the dynamics of migration to Australia in recent years has been the growth in temporary migration. In 2000–01 temporary migrants outnumbered permanent arrivals for the first time. Many of these entrants arrived on either student visas or long-term temporary skilled business visas (subclass 457). Unlike the permanent Migration Program, the level of temporary migration to Australia is not determined or subject to quotas or caps by Government, but rather is demand driven. The 457 visa also provides a pathway for skilled workers and their dependants to apply for permanent residence and many students are also eligible to apply for permanent visas under the Migration Program at the completion of their courses. The largest contribution to net overseas migration (NOM) in recent years has been from people on temporary visas—mostly comprised of overseas students and temporary skilled migrants and the rate of Australia’s population growth has increased significantly over the few years largely driven by an increase in NOM.

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