Annual Returns on immigration: essential data

Author: Dr. Barry York, Europe-Australia Institute,

It is possible to accurately chart the pattern of exclusions because, under the Immigration Act, it was required that, each year, returns be presented to the Australian parliament on admissions and exclusions. The data, which was collected by customs' officers at each port, revealed the following information about excluded persons: (i) countries of origin, (ii) countries from whence they arrived, (iii) grounds on which admission was refused and (iv) persons who passed the dictation test. The annual returns also provided data, by year and race, on persons who departed from Australia. (Between 1901 and 1946, approximately 140,000 people left Australia, mainly Asians responding to legislative measures taken against them).

The dictation test could be applied in any European language and was principally designed to exclude Asians and other non-whites, though it also occasionally proved to be an effective way of keeping out persons deemed to be politically or morally undesirable by the government. The test was mainly used in the early years of Australia's federation. About 2,000 immigrants were stopped from disembarking after failing the test, but nearly half that number were denied admission during the first five years of the test's existence. The test really ceased to be the main method of exclusion after the first world war, when various amendments at different times ensured that 'undesirables' did not attempt to gain admission in the same large numbers as in earlier times and when the test had well and truly become an effective deterrent to Asian immigration.

Beneath the raw statistics are some important and fascinating stories of the endeavours and sacrifices of human beings who journeyed to a strange new continent in search of a better future.

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