Australia’s population has just broken the 25 million people mark for the first time. That is double its population in 1970 and is largely due to migration.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports a total increase of 1.6% to the end of 2017, largely fuelled by rising net overseas migration, which accounts for 62% of total population growth. That’s the equivalent of one additional person every 1 minute and 23 seconds.

The speed at which Australia’s population is growing has prompted fierce public debate about whether such rapid growth is sustainable.

However, to put things into context, Australia occupies the world’s sixth largest landmass but only ranks 53rd in terms of global population size. And as a percentage of the world’s 7.6 billion people, Australia’s milestone headcount is certainly not especially dramatic.

Nevertheless, Australia now needs to think to the future and decide whether it wants to keep accepting such a significant quantity of migrants.

Fuelling economic growth

Historically, Australia was settled by immigrants and the 2016 Census shows that that trend still holds true, as almost half of today’s Australians were either born outside of the country or had at least one parent born overseas.

In the year from December 2016 to 2017 the Australian population increased by an estimated 338,000 people. Of this total, an estimated 147,000 people were added thanks to natural increases (more births than deaths) while 240,400 arrived from overseas.

The pros and cons of migration are widely discussed within Australia.

Saul Eslake, an economist and fellow at the University of Tasmania, points to the positive contribution that migrants make to the nation’s output. Australia’s real GDP has increased by an average yearly rate of 3.2% since the last recession, half of which was due to the expanding population.

The migrants deliver an economic dividend for Australia since the country favours skilled migrants of working age, meaning they contribute to tax revenue while also lowering the median age of the population.

A strain on cities

However, the ever-increasing influx of newcomers concentrated into a few urban centres has created a strain on the supply of housing and the country’s ageing infrastructure. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of increased traffic congestion and air pollution as new roads are built to carry more and more traffic across the city.

Many of the congestion issues result from the fact that the visitors are concentrated in key cities.

20% of the country’s huge landmass is officially designated as desert and much of the hinterland is uninhabited. People mainly live in the cities dotted around the island continent’s coastline with wide expanses of land in between. Sydney and Melbourne are the main magnets for newcomers to the country, attracting 90% of new arrivals.

In an interview with Australian radio, the multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge suggested the government could review the migrant visa process to force them to settle outside of the two main cities.

Another solution involves a radical plan to divide Sydney’s unchecked urban sprawl into three separate cities to realign the metropolis away from its historic shoreline roots. Forming three connected but independent areas will give residents more affordable housing, localized jobs with shorter commutes, and better access to schools and essential services.

A driver of urbanization

Sydney and Melbourne are not isolated cases. The World Economic Forum study Migration and Its Impact on Cities highlights the global trend of migrants being attracted to cities that have large populations. The report shows how migration and urbanization are linked, since many migrants remain in cities driving both economic and population growth.

In Australia, 99% of migrants live in urban areas, compared to 92% in the US and 95% in the UK.

Foreign-born population in major cities (% of total)
Image: International Organization for Migration

Cities like Dubai and Brussels have highly mobile workforces with a large proportion of migrants. A slightly higher proportion of Sydney’s population is foreign-born than Melbourne, but both cities have a high migrant count compared to other major urban centres.

In addition, there is a trend which shows a greater proportion of immigrants are now coming from Asia rather than from Europe.

Census records show a fall in the proportion of the overseas-born population coming from Europe, dropping from 52% in 2001 to 34% in 2016, and a jump in Asian born immigrants from 24% in 2001 to 40% in 2016.

This has contributed to the feeling that the notion of a typical Australia is being constantly redefined, with a mix of many different cultures and languages.

In order to continue welcoming migrants, Australia will need to address the cultural integration of its newcomers, as well as tackling city planning and expanding public services.