The Australian continent was first settled when ancestors of Indigenous Australians arrived via the islands of Maritime Southeast Asia and New Guinea over 50,000 years ago.
European colonisation began in 1788 with the establishment of a British penal colony in New South Wales. Beginning in 1901, Australia maintained the White Australia policy for much of the 20th century, which forbade the entrance in Australia of people of non-European ethnic origins. Following World War II, the policy was gradually relaxed, and was abolished entirely by 1973. Since 1945, more than 7 million people have settled in Australia.
Between 1788 and the mid-20th century, the vast majority of settlers and immigrants came from the British Isles (principally England, Ireland and Scotland), although there was significant immigration from China and Germany during the 19th century. In the decades immediately following World War II, Australia received a large wave of immigration from across Europe, with many more immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe than in previous decades. Since the end of the White Australia policy in 1973, Australia has pursued an official policy of multiculturalism, and there has been a large and continuing wave of immigration from across the world, with Asia being the largest source of immigrants in the 21st century. In 2019–20, immigration to Australia came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn saw a shrinkage of the Australian population for the first time since World War I, though in the following period 2021–22 showed a very strong recovery of migrant arrivals.
Net overseas migration has increased from 30,042 in 1992–93 to 178,582 persons in 2015–16. The largest components of immigration are the skilled migration and family re-union programs. A 2014 sociological study concluded that: "Australia and Canada are the most receptive to immigration among western nations".
Australia is a signatory to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and has resettled many asylum seekers. In recent years, Australia's policy of mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals by boat has attracted controversy.
Aboriginal Australians are descended from the same small group of people who left Africa about 70,000 years ago and colonised the rest of the world, a large genetic study shows. After arriving in Australia and New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, the settlers evolved in relative isolation, developing unique genetic characteristics and technology.
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