How a lack of new migrants in Australia will impact the 2021 Census figures


Ruvindri Gunawardena
International student Ruvindri Gunawardena. Source: SBS News

This year's national survey is going ahead despite the pandemic - but the country might look a little less diverse than usual.

When Ruvindri Gunawardena came to Australia as a tourist in 2017, she knew it would be the place she'd one day study in.

"I just fell in love with the country," she told SBS News.

"By that point, I had already heard so much great stuff about the Australian education system."

But while the IT student was lucky enough to start her higher education studies at Western Sydney University in Parramatta, many of the friends she had planned to study with have been left stranded in Sri Lanka.

It's become a common story for many young people as Australia's international education system - which previously contributed about $37 billion to the national economy - has been decimated by international border closures as a result of COVID-19.


Ruvindri Gunawardena
Ruvindri Gunawardena was able to come to Australia before the borders closed.
SBS News


"Some of my friends have already started their courses online," Ms Gunawarana said. 

"They're just hoping that the borders will open again so they can come here as soon as possible."

But others have abandoned their plans of studying in Australia altogether. 

The last time Australia experienced such low levels of migration was soon after World War II.

"Even the recessions in the '90s, we had low migration, but we still had net migration gains," said demographer Thomas Wilson from the University of Melbourne. 

"We generally have 200,000 to 300,000 net overseas migration growth each year, so this is very unusual for Australia."


Some culturally and linguistically diverse Australians prefer face-to-face help with filling out the census.


Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Census night will still take place on Tuesday 10 August.

Australia's national survey takes place every five years and the results gathered from it are crucial in tracking the country's changing migration patterns and providing a population snapshot.

"As it's a very unusual time in terms of Australia's population change, it's absolutely essential for all local communities in Australia to be counted," Dr Wilson said. 

"And demographers like me can't wait to get a hold of this data in about a year's time."

Labour shortage

Economists say Australia's population growth is at its lowest in a century.

"At one point in time, pre-COVID,  we would have about two million arrivals in Australia per month. Now we can't even get to 25,000," said Gabriela D'Souza from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).

"For this year, we're looking at about minus 72,000 in terms of our net overseas migration numbers, so that's quite low."  


Emma Nguyen at her Sydney restaurant.


And, she says, while the impacts are being felt across key sectors, it could just be the tip of the iceberg.

"We know that migration is procyclical. So when the economy is doing well, we'll see a lot of migration, and we know that lower population growth now will mean lower population growth into the future."

The lack of migration into Australia is putting pressure on the hospitality industry. 

Tonka in Melbourne's CBD is known for its upmarket Indian dishes, which are brought together by a team of 15 kitchen staff. More than half of them are visa holders.

But it is workers like these that Australia has been in dire need of since international borders closed in March last year.

"We support them, we just need the borders open to allow people to come and keep feeding on that cycle of staff," said Tonka co-owner and executive chef Adam D'Sylva.


Gavin Balharrie


It's not the first time Australia's Census has taken place in a global pandemic. The survey was also conducted as the country was recovering from the Spanish flu. 

And while Dr Wilson said the country may be recorded as less statistically diverse than in previous years, Australia's overall diversity is not under threat.

"We're probably going to have a small decrease in the proportion of overseas-born over the next couple of years, but that's likely to bounce back again as overseas migration resumes." 

Census night is on Tuesday 10 August but the survey can be completed ahead of time. Visit for more information. 

The story How a lack of new migrants in Australia will impact the 2021 Census figures first appeared in SBS Español

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