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Ethnic Population

Melbourne has been transformed by migration since World War II. By 1996 nearly 30% of the city's population were 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. For discussion purposes, however, it is useful to divide the postwar migration program into two waves. The first, covering the period to the early 1970s, was drawn mainly from Britain and Europe. The second wave, which built up after a brief hiatus in the immigration intake during the mid-1970s and which still continues, was drawn mainly from Asia, the Middle East and other non-European societies.

Melbourne has shared in both waves. But whereas the city was the dominant settlement point in Australia for first-wave migrants, it has played a secondary role (to Sydney) as the main locus for the second. The first wave had an enormous impact on Melbourne, leading to the creation of substantial ethnic communities, particularly from people originating from Southern Europe. These people are still making their presence felt, at least in demographic terms, as they move through the life cycle. By 1996 nearly half (47.5%) of all adults aged 45-64 who were living in Melbourne were born overseas.

More than half of the people who contributed to the overall post-World War II migration movement were from a non-English-speaking background (NESB). Because Melbourne was such a crucial locus of these people it is hardly surprising that the city has been the centre of much of the debate about ethnic rights and the merits of multiculturalism. The label 'ethnic' carries considerable symbolic baggage. For some, it simply denotes non-English-speaking background (and is used in this sense through this entry). For others, including many migrants from Western Europe, it is a social category indicating 'difference' from the host culture which implies an element of inferiority. As such, the use of the term to tag all persons of NESB origin as 'ethnics' is contentious. On the other hand, some migrant communities have embraced the idea of ethnicity and have sought to turn it into a badge of identity.

Before World War II, relatively few persons entered Australia from non-British countries. This changed after the war when the Australian government launched a population-building program. Though the preference was for British migrants, it was soon apparent that there were not enough Britons willing to fill Australia's migration target of around 1% per annum. In order to meet this target, migrants were drawn from increasingly diverse sources, beginning in Western Europe with persons from Holland (Dutch) and Germany, then moving to Southern and Eastern Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, and finally by the late 1960s, to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where persons of mixed Anglo and Indian or Sri Lankan stock were recruited.

During this period Melbourne was the main destination point for migrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Most of these migrants came from rural locations. Few knew English or possessed any post-school qualifications. They came in large numbers to Melbourne, the centre of Australia's postwar manufacturing boom, because of the employment opportunities. There were ample unskilled labouring jobs for non-English-speakers in these manufacturing industries and the construction work associated with the concurrent home-building and infrastructure boom. By 1971 19.6% of all Australians lived in Melbourne, but 26.6% of all overseas-born persons. However, 47.6% of all Greek-born persons in Australia were living in Melbourne by 1971, as were 36.9% of all Italian-born and 32.5% of all former Yugoslavian-born persons.

By the early 1970s these NESB migrants had fundamentally shaped the city's social fabric. The official ethos at the time was assimilationist. Migrants were expected to become 'New Australians' and to discard their cultural baggage at the customs counter on arrival. Most of the British and Western European migrants disappeared seamlessly into the Australian social scene. They faced few impediments in this process. Their skills, which often included trade skills, were valued and they were subject to little social prejudice. They dispersed into suburbia and when their children married they crossed the most intimate of boundaries into the local community when the vast majority of them chose or were chosen by Australian-born partners.

There was no such easy acceptance for migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. They had little to sell but their raw labour and their willingness to work hard. But during the 1950s and 1960s unskilled workers were in demand, ensuring that both men and women were able to find work and to build a financial stake here (particularly through home-ownership). Nevertheless, their concentration in these industries meant that they tended to be isolated from other Australians. By the late 1960s it was not uncommon to find in industries like automobile assembly and parts manufacturing that the majority of the lower skilled workforce was drawn from first-wave migrants. This plus their English-language difficulties led to a high degree of social distance from the host community. This distance was reinforced by the prevailing prejudicial attitudes towards Southern Europeans.

Under such circumstances these first-wave migrants had little choice but to build their own communities. This they did, particularly in inner-city, low-cost housing locations such as Carlton, Richmond, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Brunswick. By 1971, for example, just over half of Fitzroy's population was overseas-born, with Italians, Greeks and former Yugoslavs being the dominant overseas-born groups. Despite official assimilationist expectations of the time, they established de facto communities featuring clubs, churches, community centres and shopping areas catering to their needs.

In building these communities they transformed a part of Melbourne into a cosmopolitan centre, with distinctive food, wine and coffee in particular, much loved by Melbourne's intelligentsia. The realities of life for the immigrants, concerned mainly to raise the money needed to establish home and family, were not so glamorous. Though most were isolated socially from the mainstream community, by the 1970s some ethnic leaders had begun to bridge the gap. Younger persons who had achieved tertiary qualifications and thus possessed the language and communication skills needed to gain a hearing within the Australian political system, along with a few successful business people, acted as the brokers between ethnic communities and Australian institutions. They were motivated to do so by their hostility to the prevailing prejudices against their communities, and by their desire to have their cultural heritage recognised and valued in Australia.

Thus multiculturalism was born, with Melbourne migrant leaders being in the forefront of the movement. Not only was Melbourne the centre of NESB settlement but it was also home to the largest community of post-war Jewish settlers (from diverse Eastern and Central European locations) in Australia. Though not sharing the lowly occupational positions of their Southern European counterparts, their anxiety to maintain a distinctive Jewish identity provided the incentive to give leadership to the multicultural cause.

The late 1970s saw a major breakthrough when the Coalition federal government officially embraced the concept of multiculturalism and made the first moves, including the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service, to assist in the maintenance of ethnic community diversity in Australia. This response largely reflected the increased political influence of ethnic communities by this time. Another manifestation of this new influence was a series of changes to family reunion policies in Australia. In the 1950s and 1960s Australia's Immigration Department had allowed families to sponsor their relatives, but the Department controlled the numbers. By the 1980s this freedom had gone. The Fraser Government, then the Hawke Government which followed in 1983, established firm rules which effectively gave migrants 'rights' to sponsor their spouses, fiancées, parents (whether of pension or working age) and brothers and sisters (though the siblings had to pass a selection test).

These new arrangements laid one of the foundations for the second migrant wave, this time from across Asia, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe. Though first-wave migrants were responsible for the liberalisation of the family reunion program they made little use of its new provisions. This was because, by the 1980s, there was little interest in migration from Southern Europe. But for the relatively small Asian and Middle-Eastern communities resident in Australia by the early 1980s this was not the case. The Indochinese base derived from refugee movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Filipino from brides brought here by Australian partners and the Malaysians from overseas students educated under the Colombo Plan. All proved to be very active sponsors of spouses and other relatives. In the mid to late 1980s when the Australian government expanded the skilled and business migration programs, these too drew primarily on Asian sources.

Melbourne has played a significant but secondary role as a settlement locus for this stream. Of all persons born overseas who arrived in Australia between 1986 and 1996 who were still in Australia by 1996, 36.9% were living in Sydney and 23.2% in Melbourne. The majority of all China, Hong Kong, Korea and Lebanon-born persons now live in Sydney, as do nearly half the Filipinos. Generally speaking, migrants drawn from the skilled and business migration programs have located primarily in Sydney. There are some exceptions, such as migrants from Malaysia and India, who have mainly located in Melbourne. Melbourne has been distinctive in attracting a relatively high share of migrants entering via the family and particularly the humanitarian programs, matching Sydney as a locus for the largest grouping of these, the Indochinese. There were 150 839 Vietnamese-born people in Australia by 1996, of whom 59 297 or 39.3% were living in Sydney and 54 518 or 36.1% were located in Melbourne. Since 1986, Melbourne has been the major recent settlement focus for persons born in the former Yugoslavia and the former USSR, as well as major destination for those coming from the Horn of Africa, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In each case the main source is the humanitarian program.

Migrant settlement patterns reflect these distinctive waves. The first wave of Southern Europeans in inner Melbourne has largely departed. Many moved initially to adjacent suburban areas of Moreland and Banyule. Subsequently there was a third movement further out to Keilor, Doncaster and Whittlesea. Another group moved further to the south-eastern suburbs, particularly Oakleigh. By 1971, 13.4% of Oakleigh's population was born in Italy or Greece. More recently many of these people have moved to more distant south-eastern suburbs. The cultural impact of migrants in these newer locations has been far less than in the original communities they created in inner Melbourne. Carlton's Lygon Street still features Italian restaurants and cafés but the proprietors have long since moved their residences elsewhere. The second and third generation deriving from this first wave is now behaving very much like other Melburnians in its attachment to suburban life.

The settlement pattern of second-wave migrants is quite different. There is a more affluent stream, particularly Indians and Chinese from Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, which is dispersing into more affluent suburban locations such as Doncaster and Waverley. The only indications of this settlement are a few specialist retail, food, travel and other service outlets which openly provide for an ethnic clientele.

Others have located in the new (and expensive) inner-city apartments which are transforming much of inner-city Melbourne, Port Phillip and Stonnington. For the more numerous, less affluent second-wave arrivals, the possibility of inner-city location is largely gone. One exception was the first group of Indochinese who arrived in the late 1970s, many of whom were accommodated in high-rise inner-city public housing. Otherwise, gentrification has put the inner-city option out of reach. Instead, most second-wave low-income migrants are locating in suburban areas with the lowest costs of housing in Melbourne, notably Maribyrnong and Sunshine to the west, Moreland to the north and Greater Dandenong to the south-east.

These areas now constitute the most visible focus of multiculturalism in Melbourne, in the sense of ethnically distinct shopping, community and service centres. Whether these areas will repeat the experience of the first-wave migrants is clouded by continuing job shortages for low-skilled NESB workers. However, the performance of the younger generation in the education system indicates that they too will accumulate the resources needed to participate in Melbourne's standard suburban experience.

Bob Birrell