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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Australia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Australia : Overview, June 2008, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated June 2008


The vast continent of Australia is geographically diverse and thinly populated, with most of the population concentrated in five main coastal cities. The population density is less than three per square km and is one of the lowest in the world. Much of the continent is drought-prone.


Main languages: Aboriginal languages (about 100), English

Main religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism

Minority groups include Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders and South Sea Islanders. In the 2001 census, 89.4 per cent of the 460,164 indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were reported to be of Aboriginal origin only, 6.4 per cent were reported to be of Torres Strait origin only, and 4.3 per cent were reported to be of both origins. In Queensland, there is also a South Sea Islanders community, generally estimated at 20,000.

Most of the Australian population is of European ancestry, and resident predominantly in coastal areas. Since the Second World War there has been substantial immigration, changing the sociology of urban Australia. After the post-war migration of people from southern Europe (especially Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia), immigration has diversified. In the past two decades a substantial migration from Asia has changed the population composition.

The historic indigenous populations – the Aborigines and the Torres Strait Islanders – are more evenly distributed and, despite being little more than 1.5 per cent of the total population, are dominant in parts of the Northern Territory and Cape York and in several other northern and inland areas.


European colonization began in 1788 and resulted in the expropriation of Aboriginal land, warfare, massacres and disease, and declining population numbers. Though most of the original colonial population was British, the sources of migration became more diverse, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. There was significant Chinese migration in the mid-nineteenth century, but after 1901 the 'White Australia policy' virtually ended Asian migration for half a century.

After the war a migration programme was introduced. This resulted in the extraordinary diversification of Australian society. By the 1980s there were more than a hundred nationalities in Australia; many post-war migrants were from southern Europe and subsequently west and South-East Asia. By 2000, Chinese languages had become the most commonly spoken non-English language. Originally, migrant communities were expected to assimilate with the majority population. However, by the mid-1970s, the policy of assimilation began to give way to a policy of multiculturalism, where all Australians had the right to express their cultural heritage (including language and religion) and to receive social justice in terms of equal treatment and opportunity (without barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or birthplace). Two decades later, the approach changed again, with restrictions placed on migration and government policy shifting towards selectivity, based on skills needed for economic development.

Australia's economy was long based on the export of agricultural and mining products, but though these remained of considerable importance, they became less important than manufacturing and the service sector as a source of employment and economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. This evolution contributed to urbanization and to the urban concentration of almost all migrants.

By contrast, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders generally remained in the rural areas or small towns. The history of the Aboriginal population of Australia has been painful, dominated for the most part by disease and genocide, displacement and dispossession, resistance, poverty and marginalization. Assimilation, and policies such as the 'stolen children' programme (see Australia/Aborigines) and opposition to Aboriginal languages, denied Aboriginal identity.


Australia has a federal parliament of two elected houses and each state and territory has its own parliament. Other than Queensland each state also has two elected houses. Politics is dominated by two parties: the Liberal Party, in coalition with the smaller National (formerly Country) Party, and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). From the mid-1990s, under Prime Minister John Howard, the conservative coalition held federal power, while the states and territories were controlled by the Labor Party. The economy experienced steady growth in the 2000s with unemployment reaching very low levels by the mid-2000s. Growth stemmed from exports of minerals, mainly to Asia, but was constrained by a range of environmental factors especially problems in water allocation.

The election in 1996 of an independent and outspoken member of parliament, Pauline Hanson, openly opposed to Asian migration, and to the funding of Aboriginal programmes, resulted in increased hostility and violence towards Asians in several cities. The collapse of her One Nation party a few years later largely ended these overt problems. But the right-wing government of John Howard has adopted an agenda generally hostile to new immigrants and taken retrogressive steps with regard to recognizing Aboriginal rights.

Multicultural policies

Under Howard's government, multiculturalism has come under some attack, following the government's abolition of the principal multicultural agencies in the late 1990s, and reduction in funding for Aboriginal and women's programmes, and dismissal of United Nations reports that were critical of such directions. There was new pressure on migrants to conform to Australian social norms, with migrants being increasingly expected to learn English and subscribe to 'Australian values' though the conservative politicians who espoused such directions were unable to be clear what these values were.

At the start of the 2000s the Australian Government launched a powerful attack on refugees – though numbers were never large – heralded by the dispatching of refugees from a sinking Indonesian vessel to specially constructed internment centres on Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in what became ironically known as the 'Pacific solution'.

Some of these asylum-seekers were accepted by New Zealand, while others were slowly processed in Nauru. It was widely perceived that the government had managed to win the 2001 election because of its tough stance on refugees. The government subsequently declared in 2004, through the 1,000 mile wide maritime identification zone, that offshore islands, such as Christmas Island, were outside Australian official migration zone, an illegal declaration which took Australia even further away from United Nations conventions on human rights and refugee issues.

Despite this, in 2006 a group of 43 refugees from West Papua (Indonesia) managed to reach Australia by boat and their recognition by Australian courts brought Australia into conflict with Indonesia which led to further strengthening of national borders against asylum-seekers arriving by boat (ironically, asylum-seekers arriving by plane do not face the same restrictions as so-called 'boat people').

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The situation of the indigenous Australian Aboriginal population remains a critical issue in national development, whether in terms of more evidently political issues of reconciliation or through the viability of welfare-oriented policies. On every index of human needs, whether health, nutrition, education, employment, income levels, housing status or life expectancy, the Aborigine population still fares worse than all other Australians. Substance abuse, including alcoholism and petrol sniffing by youths, domestic violence and occasionally more general incidences of violence, remain significant problems. In 2007, a report into sexual abuse in the Northern Territories found that almost every community was affected by child abuse, which often went unreported. The report was commissioned by the government of the Northern Territory. The authors concluded that "Everything we have learned ... convinces us that these are just symptoms of a breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society.... There is, in our view, little point in an exercise of band-aiding individual and specific problems ... it has not worked in the past and will not work in the future."[1] The authors strongly recommended the empowerment of communities, so that they could break the cycle of deprivation. However, the government's swift response pointed in the other direction. It announced sweeping plans which included a ban on alcohol for six months, and outlawing pornography, as well as cuts in welfare payments. The package of measures was highly controversial, backed by public opinion polls but condemned by some aboriginal rights activists as unworkable. Howard was accused of electioneering in the run-up to national polls later in 2007. In August 2007, after 20 years of debate, the UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding declaration upholding the land, human and resources rights of the world's indigenous peoples. Australia was one of four countries which voted against. Afterwards the government justified its actions, saying the declaration would have given aborigines special privileges. That view was contradicted by the opposition Labour party, which said the declaration did not impose legal obligations. A Labour spokesman pledged to sign the declaration if the party came to power in the forthcoming elections.

In November 2007, after a general election landslide victory which swept John Howard from power, the centre-left Labor Party leader and prime minister elect Kevin Rudd pledged his government would be the first in Australia to make an early formal apology to Aborigines for the "stolen generation" of indigenous children snatched from their parents. Earlier in the year in a groundbreaking case, Bruce Trevorrow, an Aboriginal man taken from his family as a baby under the policy, was awarded A$525,000 (US$447,000) compensation. He is the first member of the "stolen generation" to win compensation.

The Rudd government carried through on its promise in February 2008, passing an apology motion through parliament unanimously. 'We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians,' read the motion in part. Aboriginal leaders welcomed the development, although many expressed disappointment that the apology was not accompanied by compensation.

Rudd did announce a series of measures intended to close the 17-year life-expectancy gap between Aborigines and other Australians. In practice, these included maintaining the Howard government's draconian measures against child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory, introduced in June 2007. Some Aboriginal leaders decried the policies as racist and in June 2008, threatened to block tourist access to Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), which is on Aboriginal lands.


[1] "Little Children Are Sacred", Report of the Northern Territory Board Of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (2007), Northern Territory Government.

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