Australia's net overseas migration increasing again

Australia's net overseas migration increasing again

While most of us were glued to our screens and TVs in anticipation of the first release of the 2021 Census, another valuable statistical dataset was released by the ABS – “National, state and territory population”, this time rebased for the population estimates to the 2021 Census. This release also revised all quarterly population estimates from June 2016 and included the December 2021 quarter, covering the period to the end of the 2021 calendar year.

Australia’s first quarter of net overseas gain since June 2020

The headlines from the latest “National, state and territory population” publication were:

  • Australia’s population at December 2021 was 25,766,605, an increase of 63,400 (+0.2%) from the previous quarter.
  • Australia’s annual growth was 128,000 people, which was made up of 138,500 new residents through natural increase and a net overseas migration loss of 3,600 residents.

Other than being rebased to the 2021 Census, the other exciting thing about this quarterly publication is that it included the period when Australia’s overseas migration movements came to life again. Australia’s staged international border opening commenced on the 1st of November 2021.

The net overseas migration losing streak is broken

So how has net overseas migration (NOM) changed in the last quarter of available data, and how do the new flows compare to those seen before Covid-19? If you look at the bar chart below, Australia gained around 61,000 residents from overseas every three months from December 2018 until March 2020, when the world stopped. However, in the 18 months since the March 2020 quarter, Australia lost residents to overseas migration for six consecutive quarters. It is worth noting that even in the quarters when net overseas migration loss decreased, this was primarily driven by fewer people leaving Australia (overseas residents returning home) rather than more people coming back to Australia).

The December 2021 quarter ended that streak of NOM losses, and even though the quarter included one month when our borders were still closed (October 2021), the net gain was 29,145. It will be interesting to see subsequent quarterly information and whether or not these first few quarters post-reopening are anomalies. Nevertheless, anecdotal information and overseas arrivals and departures statistics suggest that Australia’s overseas migration patterns will soon be trending towards pre-Covid-19 levels.

Victoria and New South Wales bounce back while Tasmania returns to pre-Covid levels of growth

Within Australia, the net losses and recent gains of overseas migrants were not felt evenly. As discussed, Victoria experienced some of the harshest losses of residents to overseas migration in the September - December 2020 period when the average quarterly loss of residents to overseas migration was approximately 19,000 per quarter. Since then, Victoria's net losses reduced partially as fewer Victorian residents left. Ongoing lockdowns and overall restrictions on overseas migration to Australia maintained Victoria's quarterly net overseas losses, with 6,400 residents lost in the September 2021 quarter. However, once borders opened, Victoria's most significant component of population change surged, with 12,065 more residents coming to Victoria from overseas than leaving.

New South Wales did not lose as many residents to overseas migration as Victoria during the isolated period of March 2020 - November 2021 but, like Victoria, has seen fortunes change with a net gain of 15,068 residents in the December 2021 quarter. As seen in the chart below, other states did not experience the dramatic highs and lows in net overseas migration as our two most populous States.

Queensland has been losing residents to net overseas migration for seven consecutive quarters, with South Australia and Western Australia continuing to lose residents. Interestingly, Tasmania and the ACT saw significant levels of net overseas migration gain in the December 2021 quarter. Tasmania's net gain of 1,484 residents from overseas is on par with their pre-pandemic net gains, possibly driven by an influx of international students and specialised workers.

Interstate migration patterns are still vastly different within Australia

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the most interesting demographic storylines has been internal migration, between States and Territories. It seems that for all States, the pre-Covid trends amplified, especially in the period since June 2021. New South Wales, for example, had been losing 5,000-6,000 residents to other States well before Covid-19 hit Australia, but this was offset by high net overseas migration gain. On the other hand, Victoria was hit with a "double whammy". Before Covid-19, Victoria gained residents from other States AND from overseas, but since March 2020 (and until the latest quarter), Victoria experienced the mentioned overseas losses as well as a loss of Victorians to other States within the country.

The December 2021 quarter for both Victoria and New South Wales saw very high levels of interstate migration loss. Without including natural increase (which was just above 10,000 for both States in the December 2021 quarter), Victoria gained 3,286 residents in the latest quarter of data through migration (+12,070 overseas, -8,780 interstate), whereas New South Wales only gained 560 residents through migration (+15,070 overseas, -14,510 interstate).

The big interstate migration winner continues to be Queensland. Even before Covid-19, Queensland was the most popular destination for internal movement within Australia. Since Covid-19, particularly as the second, third, fourth...(sixth?!) lockdown impacted Victoria and restrictions also affected New South Wales, residents from our two most populous States moved to Queensland. This trend continued in the last few quarters of data, with December 2021 being a record quarter where Queensland gained 19,247 residents via interstate migration. Even with a net overseas migration loss of 640 in the quarter, Queensland's total population gain of 25,256 residents between September and December 2021 was on par with pre-Covid population growth.

Although interstate migration in Tasmania is measured on a smaller scale than New South Wales, Victoria or Queensland, it has made a difference to the population of the Apple Isle. It continues a trend we wrote about even before Covid-19. Tasmania recorded only two-quarters of net interstate migration loss (June and September 2021). This is related to the State not experiencing prolonged Covid-19 restrictions or lockdowns, which in other States resulted in losses to other parts of Australia. Before March 2020, Tasmania averaged a quarterly net interstate gain of 295 residents. The latest December 2021 figures are above that, at +309. Coupled with the mentioned high levels of net overseas migration, Tasmania continues to be one of Australia's fastest-growing States.

Western Australia's interstate migration was positive for most of the period affected by Covid-19 and sometimes offset the net overseas losses. Interestingly, before Covid-19, Western Australia experienced interstate losses of around 1,300 residents per quarter, likely to eastern States and Queensland. However, from the September 2020 quarter, the trend reversed. Western Australia gained residents via interstate migration, partly because many ex-residents returned from other parts of (locked down) Australia and somewhat because fewer sandgropers left the wildflower state to venture eastward.

Will the trend continue?

With this summary of our Census-revised estimated resident population and first quarter of overseas migration data since Australia began to open up to the world again, we do wonder how the next few quarters of data will look and which stories and trends will emerge. This information guides our understanding of Australia's population growth and informs the top-down components of our population forecasts.

We look forward to the next "National, State and Territory population" release in September 2022 when the March 2022 quarter trends will be revealed.

Nenad - demographic consultant

Nenad’s background is in geosciences and geographic information systems. At .id, Nenad has experience as both as a demographer and population forecaster. His areas of expertise are place-based analysis, identifying spatial patterns in demographic trends, community profiling, catchment analysis and an understanding of role and function of different communities.

Leave a Reply