Most of the estimated 20.4 million Australians are descended from 19th- and 20th-century immigrants, the majority from Britain and Ireland. Australia’s population has quadrupled since the end of World War I , spurred by an ambitious immigration program.
In 2001, the five largest groups of the 27.4% of Australians who were born overseas were from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam and China. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. Australia’s population has increased by about 60 times since European settlement.
The self-declared indigenous population â€” including Torres Strait Islanders, who are of Melanesian descent â€” was 410,003 (2.2% of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from the 1977 census, which showed an indigenous population of 115,953. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education and life expectancies for males and females that are 17 years lower than those of other Australians. Perceived racial inequality is an ongoing political and human rights issue for Australians.
In common with many other developed countries, Australia is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002-03) live outside their home country. Australia has maintained one of the most active immigration programs in the world to boost population growth. Most immigrants are skilled; the quota includes categories for family members and refugees.
English is the official language, and is spoken and written in a distinct variety known as Australian English. According to the 2001 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Chinese (2.1%), Italian (1.9%) and Greek (1.4%).
A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. It is believed that there were between 200 and 300 Australian Aboriginal languages at the time of first European contact. Only about 70 of these languages have survived, and all but 20 of these are now endangered. An indigenous language remains the main language for about 50,000 (0.02%) people. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.