Main languages: Aboriginal languages (about 150), English
Main religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism.
Indigenous peoples include Aboriginal peoples, Torres Strait Islanders and South Sea Islanders. According to the 2016 census, the indigenous population of Australia was 649,171 people, or 2.8 per cent of the total Australian population. Of these, 91 per cent are of Aboriginal origin only and 5 per cent were reported to be of Torres Strait Islander origin, with an additional 4.1 per cent identifying as being of both origins. Estimates for Australia’s South Sea Islanders community vary widely, though most estimates are in the range of 15,000 – 20,000.
Australia’s history has been strongly shaped by migration, beginning with the arrival of British settlers 200 years ago, but more recently expanding, since the end of the Second World War, to encompass widespread migration from southern Europe, in particular Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia. Over the past two decades immigration to Australia has further diversified, with substantial migration from Asia further changing the population composition. According to the 2016 census, 49 per cent of the population was either first- or second-generation Australian.
The historic indigenous populations – the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander peoples – are more evenly distributed and, despite being 2.8 per cent of the total population, represent over 25 per cent of the population in the Northern Territory.
Updated June 2019
Since the colonization of Australia began in the eighteenth century, its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have suffered generations of violence and marginalization. Indigenous Australians remain in situations of extreme disadvantage compared to non-indigenous Australians across a range of human rights and development indicators, including health, education and income.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians continue to experience lower levels of access to health services than the general population: 2015-17 data shows that, while there the gap has narrowed slightly, indigenous life expectancy for males (71.6 years) and females (75.6 years) is still 8.6 and 7.8 years lower respectively than their non-indigenous counterparts. They are more likely to be hospitalized for most diseases and conditions; to experience disability and reduced quality of life due to ill health; and to die at younger ages than other Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also suffer a higher burden of emotional distress and possible mental illness than that experienced by the wider community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women also experience poorer health across all areas compared with non-indigenous women.
One challenge in terms of service access and development is the geographical seclusion of many rural indigenous communities. While the country as a whole is highly urbanized, with almost 90 per cent of Australians now living in urban areas, the proportion is significantly lower among the indigenous population; over 20 per cent are still based in areas classified as remote or very remote, compared to less than 2 per cent of the non-indigenous population. Many of these isolated communities, particularly in the Northern Territory, struggle with higher levels of child mortality, poor living standards and lack of access to essential services such as health care. These issues are compounded by a lack of culturally appropriate programmes and limited opportunities for bilingual education, with a large proportion of indigenous children in more remote areas of the country barely able to read or write. Though some remote indigenous communities face significant challenges, the announcement in November 2014 by the Western Australia state government that as many as 150 of its 274 Aboriginal communities would be shut down sparked widespread outrage among Aboriginal Australians and rights activists. Amnesty International noted that the plan to evict traditional owners from their homes would cause considerable trauma to the communities and that for them migration to larger urban centres would present an even higher risk of substance abuse, crime and other issues.
These and other policies have exacerbated problems such as cultural dislocation, poverty and exclusion, resulting in a heavy toll on mental health. In Australia, suicide rates among indigenous youth have reached epidemic levels and are among the highest in the world, a phenomenon reportedly not seen even a generation ago. According to the Australian Department of Health, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, the highest suicide rate was for ages 20–24, 21.8 deaths per 100,000, five times the non-indigenous female rate for that age group. The severity of the situation was highlighted by reports that at least 62 indigenous people, including 15 children, had died as a result of suicide between January and mid-May 2019, prompting campaigners to call for more effective government interventions.
In the Northern Territory, since the commencement of the so-called Northern Territory Intervention in 2006, considerable resources have been allocated to the task of extending the reach of mainstream forms of policing and governance. However, this approach has eroded indigenous communities and led to elevated rates of incarceration. Indeed, indigenous peoples make up about 30 per cent of the Territory’s residents but more than 80 per cent of its prison population. Of particular concern in this regard is the use of paperless arrest powers in the Northern Territory following the passing in 2014 of Section 133AB of the Police Administration Act (NT), allowing the police to detain a person in custody for up to four hours without a warrant if they suspect that person has committed, or is about to commit, an ‘infringement notice offence’. Indigenous community leaders and other advocates have expressed concerns that these expanded powers are having a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Northern Territory, perpetuating the disproportionate levels of indigenous people in custody for minor offences, such as drunkenness, swearing or making too much noise. These problems are evident across the country, with 2018 government data showing a 45 per cent rise in the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since 2008: indigenous men and women are 15 and 21 times more likely respectively to be incarcerated than their non-indigenous counterparts. Comprising 2 per cent of the population in total, indigenous Australians nevertheless make up 28 per cent of the adult prison population.
The outbreak of a series of devastating wildfires during 2018 and early 2019 in Australia, amidst record-breaking temperatures, has highlighted the significant risks posed by climate change. While posing a threat to all Australians, the impacts are already impacting disproportionately on the country’s indigenous populations. For instance, with the disapperance of vast sections of the Great Barrier Reef to large-scale bleaching, coastal indigenous communities who depend on the reef for its natural resources and to uphold cultural, spiritual and social values are already contending with profound loss. Intense heatwaves have also devastated various forms of wildlife. Following the deaths of millions of fish in the Murray-Darling River basin in three massive kill events in early 2019 as a result of drought and water mismanagement, hundreds of Aborigine activists demonstrated in March, calling for greater indigenous involvement in managing the river system. Local Aboriginal community members emphasized that what had happened was not only an ecological disaster but a profound cultural one as well.
Australia continues to attract international criticism for its harsh immigration and asylum policies, including mandatory detention, the turning back of boats with asylum seekers found at sea and the removal of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in other countries, such as Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where reports of human rights violations have been common. Independent investigations have highlighted evidence of sexual and physical assaults on children and adults, inhumane living conditions and deteriorating mental health among many detainees: between 2013 and early 2019, 12 people have died in detention in Manus Island and Nauru, including two suicides. At the same time, asylum seekers living in Australia had their housing and income support ended by the government in August 2018, leaving them even more vulnerable.
Some commentators have suggested that the harsh asylum policies, which enjoy wide popular support, are driven not only by border security but also by the legacy of exclusionary attitudes among white Australians towards non-Caucasian migrants as well as the indigenous population in general. Australia’s shifting demographic in recent decades as a result of migration, particularly from Asia and the Middle East, has been contested by a growing climate of intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities. This has been exacerbated by a number of violent incidents as well as prevented attacks on Australian soil, including the deadly siege of a café in Melbourne by an Australian of Somali origin in June 2017 and the stabbing of three civilians, one fatally, in November 2018. Attacks such as these may have helped intensify already widespread feelings of Islamophobia among the general population, reflected in frequent incidents of hate crime against Muslims, particularly women.
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.
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represent the most ancient civilization in the world, extending back more than 50,000 years. Their ancestors were believed to have been the first people to cross an ocean and after reaching Australia settled across the country. Numbering hundreds of thousands by the time the first colonialists arrived, they sustained themselves through a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintained a close spiritual connection with their territory.
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 dialects 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, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 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 and opposition to Aboriginal languages, denied Aboriginal identity.
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 adopted an agenda generally hostile to new immigrants and taken retrogressive steps with regard to recognizing Aboriginal rights. Under Howard’s government, multiculturalism came 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 also renewed pressure on migrants to conform to Australian social norms, with migrants being increasingly expected to learn English and subscribe to ‘Australian values’.
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 Australia’s official migration zone, an illegal declaration which took Australia even further away from United Nations conventions on human rights and refugee issues.
In recent years, tolerance towards minorities including Australia’s growing Middle Eastern and Asia populations has appeared to be in decline, with a number of high profile incidents of hate crimes and increasingly negative popular rhetoric.
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 Labour Party (ALP).
While there has been some improvement in recent years in the government’s efforts to address the serious inequalities in areas such as education, employment and health affecting Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, progress has been slow. Furthermore, the introduction of the government’s controversial Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) in July 2014, consolidating 150 different programmes into five broad thematic areas and involving cuts of more than AU$500 million over the next five years, has generated considerable resentment among indigenous communities. In addition to reduced overall funding, significant portions of the new budget have gone to state departments, sporting clubs and other non-indigenous organizations, while some local indigenous organizations found that their funding had been halted.
Nevertheless, there have been some positive steps in government policy. In 2013 the Australian government unanimously passed legislation recognizing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as the first inhabitants of Australia. This historic piece of legislation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013, is the first law to officially recognize the status of indigenous peoples in Australia and directly refute in legislative terms the doctrine of terra nullius (‘empty land’) upon which Australia was founded – a legal fiction which long enabled the denial of indigenous people’s rights. The Act is an interim step on the path towards a possible referendum for constitutional change to officially acknowledge the indigenous population.
Australia’s indigenous population continues to face disproportionate levels of arrest, detention and incarceration – a reflection not only of their poverty and exclusion, but also discriminatory policing measures such as paperless arrest powers. For example, in Western Australia, where the incarceration rate for indigenous children is 52 times higher than the rate for non-indigenous children, a key contributing factor has been Criminal Code Act 1913 (WA), requiring magistrates to impose mandatory minimum sentences on young offenders in certain circumstances. Despite recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2012 to revise this practice, in 2014 the West Australian Legislative Assembly passed a bill extending the range of offences attracting a mandatory minimum sentence to include home burglaries.
A particularly controversial government policy is the projected closure of specific remote communities, particularly in Western Australia. In September 2014, indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion announced that agreements had been reached with a number of states to transfer responsibility from the federal government for service provision in remote indigenous communities. In November 2014, following this announcement, the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, flagged that up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia might be closed, claiming that the social and health problems in many remote communities meant that the state could not provide them with essential services and the number of these communities should be reduced. In May 2015, the premier released the government’s plan for the state’s 274 remote communities. While no specific details were provided on how decisions would be made, the premier noted he expected a ‘significant’ number would close.
Another significant development is the increasing hostility both in rhetoric and official policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat has monopolized Australian politics in recent years. Following a number of boat arrivals and numerous maritime tragedies involving loss of life at sea, in 2013 new legislative and policy arrangements were adopted which have made it even more difficult for people arriving by boat to seek asylum in Australia. These included the Regional Resettlement Arrangement brokered with the Papua New Guinea government. Known as the ‘PNG Solution’, it stipulated that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat after July 2013 would be sent to the remote Papua New Guinea island of Manus for offshore processing. Furthermore, the agreement stipulated that even those found to have a refugee claim would be denied settlement in Australia, instead being resettled in Papua New Guinea. The government has also introduced a highly prescriptive ‘code of conduct’ for asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas that, if breached, may result in reduced payments, visa cancellation, detention or losing access to services.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Indigenous Law Centre, University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR)
[Working in support of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia]
South Sea Islanders
Australian South Sea Islanders Secretariat (ASSIS)
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in