Throughout its history, Melbourne has been the home of poor, adventurous and ambitious immigrants. Its ethnic diversity has been one of its most enduring and distinctive features.
Melbourne has been transformed by migration since World War II. By 1996 nearly 30% of the city's population was born overseas. Another 12.5% were born in Australia of parents, both of whom were born overseas. There has been a high and continuing diversity in the origins and subsequent settlement experiences of these migrants.
Language barriers, limited job opportunities and cultural marginalisation have made the migratory experience stressful and painful, but in some cases also lucrative. In most ethnic communities, high rates of outmarriage in the second and third generations are evidence for cultural diversity rather than assimilation in a city which now promotes its ethnic enclaves and celebrates a regular round of ethnic festivals. As generations of immigrants continue to both define and absorb the culture of Melbourne, a distinctive and unique ethnic experience is being forged.
The geographic boundaries of Melbourne have been extended frequently over the century and a half or so since it was officially proclaimed as a town. In 1842, Melbourne was confined to little more than the formal square mile demarking the town in Port Phillip District of New South Wales. Now it extends up to 70 kilometres from this square mile to Portsea in the south and includes places as far afield as Hastings, Cranbourne, Healesville, Eltham, Whittlesea, Melton and Werribee. Thus, in talking about the population of Melbourne, change in numbers comes not only from the balance of births, deaths and migration, but also from incorporation of new areas into the city.
When demographic trends change in Australia, Melbourne has tended to be a leader. This is particularly true of changes in the birth rate. When fertility fell in the latter part of the 19th century from historically high levels, Melbourne led the way in Australia. Then, during the post World War II baby boom, Melbourne was again in the forefront, this time towards higher fertility. By 2002, Melbourne clearly had the lowest fertility rate among the major capital cities.