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75 years of Fil-Auship: A Snapshot of Filipino migration to Australia

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Melba Marginson
Melba Marginson is a former Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission. She is a multi-awarded community leader, having been conferred the “Australia’s 100 Women of Influence” by Westpac and Australian Financial Review in 2014 and the Meritorious Medal for Community Service by the Victorian Government in 2009. In 2001, she was inducted into Victoria’s First Women’s Honour Roll for ‘Achievement in Protecting Migrant Women from Violence by the Centenary of Federation.

The wizard wind carries lonesome melodies echoing memories of the past hundred years – of schooners, luggers, pearl shells, and waves of settlers called Manilamen, washed ashore in the Torres Strait and Broome.

“Manilamen: The Outsiders Within” – poem by Deborah Ruiz Wall

When I wrote the Filipino Chapter for the Australian People’s Encyclopedia in 2001, I didn’t realise I would be revisiting and reflecting on it two decades on. 

I was approached by Dr. James Jupp, then Director of the Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies of the Australian National University. He wanted me to write it because of the role I played in organising public support for Filipino women experiencing family violence.

In the course of my preparations for the Filipino Chapter in 2000, I came across historical information that has fed my continuing enthusiasm for the Filipino community’s legacy and contributions to this country. 

The Filipino global diaspora began on June 1st, 1565 with the departure of the San Pablo Galleon from Cebu City.  This began a 250-year Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade that brought about the journey of Filipinos to the New World.  It was in the 1870s that Filipino pearl divers were employed in the pearl fishing industry in Broome off Western Australia and in the Torres Strait.  They were called “Manila-men” and they contributed significantly to the social, cultural and economic infrastructure of Broome.  Their descendants, who are of Filipino and Aboriginal ancestry, made good lives for themselves and their families.  The Manila-men constitute the first wave of Filipino migration to Australia.  

The succeeding waves of Filipino migration have been largely determined by the changes in Australian policies on immigration and labour.  I will provide here a chronological summary of the migration since the Manila-men came in 1870s.  Take note that the Immigration Act of 1901 (White Australia Policy) played a big part in reducing and restricting the number of Filipino settlers in Australia; hence the population did not increase much between 1901 and 1950. 

The 1950s saw the migration of Filipino students and scholars as part of the Colombo Plan.  

The 1960s was when skilled Filipinos were targeted to fix the workers shortage in certain fields.  Some 300 nurses came as single women and filled a gap in the nursing profession. 

In the 1970s, the continued liberalisation of Australian immigration policies and the political and economic unrest in the Philippines determined the huge increase in Filipino settlers in Australia.  In particular, the Family Reunion Program has allowed Filipino women migrating to Australia as partners and spouses of Australian men.  This phenomenon has significantly skewed the Filipino population in Australia by 2:1 in favour of women.

In the 1990s up to the present day, skilled Filipinos have been coming to Australia due to the Howard Government’s focus on skilled migration. 

Australia’s aggressive promotion of its education overseas has enticed Filipinos to join the influx of international students from 2000 to the present day.  Also of note is the significant number of Filipinos amongst Temporary Protection Visa arrivals throughout 2000 to 2018.  

Fred Corpus, Manilaman descendant, considered as good as the Japanese divers. In the 1950s, he worked in Broome and Darwin. | Photo credit: Western Australian Museum

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a stop to migration everywhere in the world.  Hence we can fairly say that for much of 2020-21, there was no Filipino migration to Australia at all. 

According to the 2020 ABS Census, there are now 310,000 Filipinos in Australia but this number only represents first generation Filipinos.  Generations of Filipino-Australians have been born here who have a parent or two from the Philippines but register themselves as Australian on census night.  This is the overall pattern with the Australian population – overseas born being 24%, but those with a parent or two born overseas make up 45% of all Australians.  

Filipinos are now the fifth largest overseas-born community in this country, one of the fastest growing in population – 53% have advanced Diploma to post-graduate degrees, 63% are in the labour force, 45% with middle class income, largely proficient in English and relatively comprised of young families (2020 ABS).  

No doubt this is a very positive profile.  On top of this, it was the Filipino community that raised public awareness on Family Violence in Australia between 1990-2000. The experiences of Filipino victims of domestic violence were the subject of almost weekly news, articles, documentaries and academic research around the country.  The massive media coverage of the issue led to significant changes in legislation and immigration rules.  However, the flow on systemic impact did not occur until 2012 when Anglo-Australian Rosie Batty’s son was killed by his father on the cricket ground.  

The forthcoming commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Philippines-Australia diplomatic relations has given me time to pause and reflect on the future of the Filipino community in Australia.  

We have to appreciate the fact that the intermarriages of largely Filipino women and Australian nationals many decades ago have produced Filipino-Australian children whose population is not captured by the ABS data.  In addition, Filipino children who arrived under the Family Reunion Program have now grown and identify as Australians too.  

Therefore, the future of the Filipino community in Australia now lies in the hands of this generation of mixed Filipino-Australians.  They are the defining feature of the Filipino community now and in the years to come.  They will shape the way we actively participate in Australia’s growth as a nation of immigrants.  These millennials, Gen X and Gen Z are English-speaking, upwardly mobile because they were educated in Australia, socio-politically attuned to the issues most mainstream Australians value, and confident of their identity based on the Australian government’s strong multicultural policies.

Feature photo: Since the 1960s, hundreds of nurses came to fill a skills shortage in Australia. These Filipino nurses were trained at Balmain hospital, Sydney in 1974. | Photo credit: Agnes Shea

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