Australia's Increasing Ethnic and Religious Diversity
By Christine Inglis
December 1, 2002
Australia began the new millennium with a larger and more diverse population,
according to results from the 2001 census. A five percent growth in
overseas-born residents arriving since the 1996 census led to a slight decline
in the proportion of Australian-born residents to three quarters of the entire
population. The United Kingdom led the flow as the birthplace of 5.5 percent
of the population, followed by New Zealand (1.9 percent), Italy (1.2 percent),
and China and Vietnam (0.8 percent each). In addition, 6.3 percent of the
population was born in Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East.
With more individuals born outside English-speaking countries, 15 percent of
the population now speaks languages other than English at home. The most
commonly spoken languages are now Chinese, Italian, Greek, and Arabic.
When asked about their ancestral origins, 35.9 percent claimed Australian
ancestry. Over 65 percent also claimed various European ancestries. The census
allowed individuals to select more than one ancestry, which also accounts for
why the total responses exceeded the total population by some 20 percent. Some
7.2 percent also acknowledged Asian ancestries, especially Chinese (3 percent).
A further 1.9 percent referred to their North African and Middle Eastern
origins, mainly Lebanese (0.9 percent).
Another element in Australia's diversity is the growth of non-Christian
religions. The number of Buddhists increased 79 percent over the previous five
years, partly due to conversions in the existing population and partly due to
immigration flows. Buddhists now account for 1.9 percent of the population,
ahead of Muslims (1.5 percent) and Hindus (0.5 percent).
A continuing trend first noted in the 1991 census is the growth in the
Indigenous population to 2.2 percent of all Australians. This is a 16.2 percent
increase in five years, and follows a 33 percent increase between 1991 and
1996. The most significant factor for the growth is not changes in fertility
and mortality, but rather the growing willingness to acknowledge Aboriginal or
Torres Strait Islander ancestry.
Sydney at the Center
Australia's growing diversity is most evident in Sydney, Australia's largest
city, which has a population of over 3.4 million. Its economic position ensures
that it is the major Australian destination for long-term migrants, 7.2 percent
of whom arrived after 1996. It is also the nation's most diverse city. One
third of its population (33.5 percent) are foreign-born, with 10.4 percent from
Asia and another 3.1 percent from North Africa and the Middle East.
As an emerging global city, the service sector is of major importance in its
economy, as are the numbers of highly educated individuals in the population as
a whole. Research carried out in 1996 showed that 13.3 percent of Sydney's
adult population had university degrees. While only 12.8 percent of the
Australian born had university-level qualifications, the comparable figures for
the overseas born were higher: 16.3 percent for those from the main
English-speaking source countries and 14.8 percent for those from non-English
speaking countries. More recent immigration patterns suggest that the
education levels of the foreign born have risen since 1996.
Over a quarter (27.3 percent) of all Sydneysiders speak a language other than
English at home. The most common are Chinese (6 percent) and Arabic (4.3
percent). As part of this greater linguistic diversity, Sydney is also the
state capital with the highest proportion (6 percent) of its population not
fluent in English.
Religious diversity is also increasing in Sydney, which is home to the majority
of Australia's non-Christians. Buddhists are the largest group (357,813),
followed by Muslims (281,578), and Hindus (95,473). Together, they constitute
eight percent of the city's population. The Muslim population is very diverse
in its origins, coming from the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries,
including Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Fewer Sydneysiders refer to having Australian (28.8 percent) or Anglo-Celtic
(39.2 percent) ancestry than for the nation as a whole. More, however, report
Southern and Eastern European (14.4 percent) as well as Asian (14.5 percent)
and Middle Eastern (5.3 percent) ancestry. Another important dimension of
Sydney's diversity is that it has the largest Indigenous population in the
country (31,174), which makes up one percent of its population.
Australia's growing ethnic and religious diversity presents a challenge in a
world where difference is increasingly linked, by many members of the public
and policy makers alike, to threats to security and social cohesion. Sydney,
with its extensive diversity, will increasingly be a key site in determining
whether these fears are justified.
Increased Immigration Ahead
Since the mid-1980s, when Australia began to restructure its economy to meet
the challenges of globalization, there has been an increasing focus on
developing high value-added sectors such as banking and insurance, as well as
on building a knowledge-based economy. As a result, migration policy has
refocused on highly skilled workers, both permanent and temporary.
Citing the contribution of immigration to higher living standards, income
equality, and healthier government budgets, Australia plans to increase its
2002-2003 immigration program for permanent residence to the highest annual
intake since the end of the 1980s.
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