The earliest arrivals of Italians in Australia were limited in number, comprising explorers, missionaries, and a small number of labour migrants. In 1881, 217 immigrants from Veneto and Fruili arrived as refugees in Australia after a failed attempt to set up a new colony in the Pacific Islands. Threatened by the development of non-English speaking immigrant ghettos, the government hired out the families to English-speaking employers at a salary of £30 for 12 months. Nonetheless, the Italian bond triumphed, and by 1882, the majority of the refugees had reconvened and formed Australia’s first Italian group settlement known as “New Italy” (now Woodburn) along the Richmond River in northern New South Wales.
"The earliest arrivals of Italians in Australia were limited in number, comprising explorers, missionaries, and a small number of labour migrants. In 1881, 217 immigrants from Veneto and Fruili arrived as refugees in Australia after a failed attempt to set up a new colony in the Pacific Islands"
Initially called “La Cella Venezia,” the community thrived on land dismissed by British colonists as barren and unproductive. In 1891, based on the impressive farming skills shown by the New Italy community, the Queensland government agreed to assisted passages from Italy to help with the labour shortage in the sugar cane industry. However, the government insisted on “whiter” Italians from north of Livorno to ensure they would more easily assimilate with the predominantly white Australian community. Even then, the 300 Piedmontese, Lombards and Veneti were the government’s last option, after attempts to recruit “fairer” British, German and Scandinavian immigrants failed. Coupled with immigrants lured by the gold rushes of Victoria and Western Australia in the 1850s and 1890s, an Italian presence started to sprout across Australia, largely in the mining and sugar cane industries. At the same time, resentment towards Italians began to rise, with many Australians threatened by the Italians’ willingness to work harder for lower pay.
New Italy Community c1917. Courtesy of the New Italy Museum Inc.
America and Canada close shop
For many Italians fleeing their homeland in search of better opportunities after the First World War, the immigration restrictions imposed by the United States and Canada propelled them to the Land Down Under.
America had severely restricted its intake of Italian immigrants and Canada’s new Immigration Act of 1919 refused immigrants from Italy as a WWI enemy. Australia’s need for workers prevented such extreme immigration restrictions. However, the government limited Italian migration to 2% of “white” English-speaking arrivals to appease public discontent and pacify concerns that Italians would undermine the Anglo-Australian character of the population. While the Australian Census of 1921 recorded 8,135 Italians residing in the country, by 1930 another 30,000 had arrived. Between 1922 and 1930, 84% of Italian immigrants were men. In the years from 1931 and 1940, the proportion of female Italian migrants surged to 43% with many wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters joining their families. The strong farming skills of many Italians led two-thirds to settle in rural Australia, working in agriculture, mining and railway-building projects. The remaining worked in the construction, food and garment industries in urban areas, with over half being self-employed. Nonetheless, the Australian community maintained a perception of the cultural inferiority of Italians as peasants who led primitive lifestyles. Continued hostilities towards the large number of Italian arrivals fuelled both the Fascist movement in Australia and the social segregation of Italians, which in turn encouraged further prejudice. Consequently, with the outbreak of the Second World War, over 4,700 Italians were interned across Australia as a threat to national security, with the largest number in Queensland followed by Western Australia.
Populate or perish
The near invasion of Australia by Japan during the Second World War exposed the vulnerability of Australia’s defense and saw a major shift in policy from restricting migration to the “populate or perish” catch cry. Australia’s need for population growth and a lack of preferred immigrants from northern Europe encouraged the resumption of diplomatic relations with Italy and the consideration of Italian migrants. According to Baldassar, “post-war emigration was to be the major and most significant role Australia played in the history of the wider Italian diaspora.” Italy became the major single source country of non-British migrants to Australia. In particular, the introduction of the 1951 bilateral accord of the Assisted Migration Scheme facilitated huge numbers of Italian migration to Australia. Between 1951 and 1968, around 42,000 Italians arrived under this accord on the condition that they took whatever work and accommodation was offered for a period of two years. The Assisted Migration Scheme, along with migration through family chains, saw the Italian-born population of Australia rise from 33,632 in 1947 to 120,000 in 1954. The population further expanded to 228,000 by 1961, reaching a peak of 289,476 by 1971. Unlike earlier periods of migration, the majority of post-war immigrants came from the southern parts of Italy including Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo and Campania. As a result of this mass migration, Italian immigrants began to have a significant influence on Australian culture. A change in government in the 1970s saw a shift in immigration policies, embracing the idea of a multicultural Australia and finally recognizing the positive contribution of Italians to Australian society.
Source: Australian Brureau of Statistics, 2011 Census.
"Immigration: Federation to Century's End 1901–2000" (PDF (64 PAGES)). Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. October 2001.
The new Italian boom
With almost 1 million Australians of Italian descent, Italians continue to represent the largest ancestry group in Australia apart from the UK, totalling 4.6% of the entire Australian population. While the large majority of Italian-born Australians live between New South Wales and Victoria (68.8%), significant numbers can also be found across South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. More recently, the European economic crisis and downturn in the Italian economy is inspiring a new influx of Italians to Australia. From 2012-2013, more than 20,000 Italians arrived in Australia, exceeding the number of Italians that arrived in 1950-1951 during the post-Second World War boom. From 2012-2013, almost 16,000 “working holiday” visas were issued to Italian citizens between the ages of 18 and 30, up 66% from the previous year.
Mr and Mrs G. Fin. at the arrival of the Italian president Saragat at Sydney’s Mascot Airport, NSW 1967. Courtesy of the Fin family.
Antonio Caroli, from Italy’s Puglia region, moved to Australia on his 12-month working holiday visa in 2011 and again in 2014. “For many young Italians, there’s a belief that you cannot dictate your own future in Italy. We grow up with the idea of the “raccomandazione,” poorly paid jobs and the impossibility for young couples to marry and buy a house,” he explains. “There’s this idea that Australia is a place where you can find a job and get rich and have a good life.” Whereas once the Australian government was forced to open its doors to immigrants to survive, the tables have turned dramatically. With Australia now widely recognized as a place of opportunity and economic stability, many from both Italy and across the world dream of immigrating to the Land Down Under. “It’s hard to get an employer to sponsor you to stay in Australia and Australian citizenship is practically impossible,” says Caroli, who has since returned to Italy. However, for the many Italian pioneers who persevered through the early hardships of Australian life, the gamble seems to have paid off.