The earliest migrants arrived in Australia from Asia between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, although this is a matter of debate.
Estimates about the earliest settlers vary and depend on the discovery of Stone Age artifacts and human bones. Evidence of these remains reflects the hunter-gatherers' lifestyle, where the Aborigines ate rat-kangaroo, wallaby and fish. Aboriginal people of today contribute much to the cultural life of Australia. The landmark High Court decision in the Mabo case now recognizes Aborigines as original custodial owners of Australia. This court ruling in 1992 found that under Australian law, indigenous people have rights to land.
British interest in Australia began in the early 1770s, with Captain James Cook's landing at Botany Bay, near what is now Sydney, in his ship Endeavour. This key historical event later proved crucial for the formation of settlements, as Cook claimed New South Wales for the British Crown. The British first colonized Australia in 1788, when it had an indigenous population of up to 300,000.
The first European migrants were convicts transported from Britain in the mid-18th century, together with guards and administrators. This situation was a result of an overflowing prison population, where the possibility of transporting convicts to Australia arose in British Parliament in 1785. A fleet of 1,044 people, including 759 convicts, arrived on the shores of Australia. Officials and guards started to establish farms, fishing and other enterprises, with the help of convict labor. After three years, colonies were established in New South Wales, Port Arthur (in Tasmania) and Norfolk Island.
Free settlers began arriving in Australia from 1793 to seek out new farming lands, which encouraged more settlers. By 1831, the British government financially assisted immigration, with 70,000 people flocking to the country over the following 10 years. A number of Britons were wealthy enough to migrate independently, including those who were granted pastoral leases. They became known as English "squattocracy." This includes the example of Thomas Macqueen, who bought 10,000 acres of in the Hunter Valley in 1823. Macqueen employed mechanics, farmers and shepherds, as well as buying plants and stock. After four years of this lifestyle, he encouraged other migrants to follow suit.
There have also been a few specialized groups of migrants entering Australia over the past two centuries. Since European settlement, development of Australia's natural resources has required the input of specialist workers. These include gold miners from China, copper miners from Cornwall, Afghan camel drivers, vineyard workers from Germany, pearl divers from Japan and laborers from the Pacific Islands.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia is one of the fastest growing nations. Despite its large geographical area, the population is highly concentrated, with 86 percent living in urban areas. Figures reveal a high population density along Eastern, South Eastern and South Western coastal areas, with 83 percent of residents living within 50km of the coast. The population density is less than one person per square kilometer.
During boom periods migration was encouraged and increased, just as it saw a decrease during times of depression. A trend occurred in times of high unemployment, where migrants went in search of a ‘brighter future.' At this time, people who did find work were blamed for the unemployment of others. A huge influx of about 2.5 million immigrants, predominantly from Europe, migrated between 1949 to 1970. These consisted of refugees or those taking part in the General Assisted Passage Scheme. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority and similar ventures established a need for people to work on Australia's tunnels, dams and roads.
Increasing the population remained an objection of government policy for more than 25 years after World War II. Bambrick (1994) notes that during the immediate post-war years, the resettlement of refugees from Eastern Europe was predominant. This happened when the Australian government entered formal agreements to sponsor migration from European countries such as Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Greece. During this period, Arther Calwell, the first minister for immigration, maintained a strict "White Australia" policy.
In 1973, the Whitlam Labor Government adopted a policy of non-discrimination in the selection of immigrants. This move resulted in an increased admission of Asians. By 1992, there were approximately 150,000 Vietnamese and Chinese migrants. The contemporary scene of Australia is culturally diverse. Those born in the United Kingdom are the largest group after New Zealand in providing migrants to Australia, with an increasing number arriving from Asia.