Research background

Australia has a long and complex history of migration and settlement and a highly diverse population. The 2011 Australian Census revealed that over a quarter (26%) of Australia’s population were born overseas and a further one fifth (20%) had at least one overseas-born parent (ABS 2012).  There were also over 300 ancestral groups separately identified in the 2011 census. Furthermore, mixed ancestry has also started to become a strong feature of diversity in Australia with just under a third (32%) of people who responded to the ancestry question reporting two or more ancestries (ABS 2012). Cultural diversity is thus a key feature of current government initiatives to address issues ranging from how to provide fair and equitable services to the various groups in society to the best ways to ensure inclusion of diverse people and social cohesion within communities.


Australian immigration: policy changes

Australian contemporary immigration policy has been developed since World War Two when population growth became the prime focus of Australian government. Between 1945 and 1972 and early migrants were selected on their perceived ability to assimilate quickly into the Australian society (Cox 1987). People from non-British source countries were allowed to come to Australia under certain conditions and expectations of assimilation. Assimilation was characterised by an expectation that all immigrants switch from their mother tongues to English and abandon the linguistic and cultural practices of the home country (Burnett 1998, Berndt 1964). Then, the need for settlement services was not officially recognised and therefore minimal (Millbank et al. 2006). Since then, Australia has continued to admit people of non-British and non-white background.

The early 1950s saw a launching of a Colombo Plan which was a cooperative venture for the economic and social advancement of the peoples of South and Southeast Asia. Under this Plan, Asian students arrived to Australia for long-term training and skills development. Following the Vietnam War, a large number of Indo-Chinese refugees came to Australia under the humanitarian program and it was only then that settlement services began to take root.

Because of the above contributing factors, the push for new migrants to assimilate has become discriminatory as it reinforced social exclusion in the host community (Berndt 1964). This expectation to assimilate was progressively lifted in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the discourse shifted to one of integration and then multiculturalism (DIAC 2012b; Millbank et al 2006).  Jerzy Zubrzycki, who became an Adviser to the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1968, was credited as a ‘founder’ of Australian multiculturalism. He articulated a voluntary integrative model of multiculturalism that reinforced the importance of cultural pluralism and a strong commitment to group rights, access and equity concerns (Naraniecki 2011).

To address multiple levels of inequalities encountered by ethno-cultural groups, the Australian government introduced a multiculturalism policy in the 1970s modelled after the Canadian framework. When the Labor Party won the election in 1972, the new Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, officially declared an end to the official White Australia Policy, which had been a part of Australia’s national identity since the birth of the Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901. Al Grassby proclaimed in 1973: ‘White Australia is dead.  Give me a shovel and I will bury it’ (quoted in Tavan 2005: 204). 

Multiculturalism policy

The new policy of multiculturalism was seen as promoting pluralism and diversity and enriching Australia by giving respect to different cultures and values. The implementation of the policy was followed by the 1975 amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, the establishment of the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council in 1976, and the adoption of the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia in 1989, which defined policy responses to population diversification for the first time (DIAC 2012b, Burnett 1998). Multiculturalism in Australia and its attendant public policies have passed through several stages: from the ‘egalitarian multiculturalism’ of the Whitlam era (1973-1975), the ‘liberal multiculturalism’ of Fraser (1975-1983) to the ‘managerial multiculturalism’ of Hawke, Keating and Howard (1983-2007) (Jayasuriya 2008: 27-28).


Recent conflicts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have seen waves of forced migrants and refugees settle in Australia. Despite various targeted and well-intended multiculturalist approaches, each wave of migrants continue to face settlement issues. The policy of multiculturalism accepts that cultural differences are inevitable and that both migrant and the host community need to mutually adapt to one another. However, it does not fully take into account the social, economic and structural inequalities that many migrants experience in Australia (Burnett 1998).

The conservative Howard Government period (1996-2007) ushered in the aggressive assertion of national citizenship values at the expense of cultural pluralism and the recognition of cultural differences. Under the Howard Government, financial support for multiculturalism was gradually undermined by ‘economic rationalism’ and a slow erosion of multiculturalism as a public policy ensued (Poynting 2008).  When the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs was renamed into the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in January 2007, the term ‘multiculturalism’ was symbolically removed from the title of the Commonwealth Department.  As Jayasuriya (2008: 27) explains, ‘The fallout from identity politics has been a form of cultural ghettoization … and a ‘them vs. us’ attitude, vividly portrayed during the Cronulla riots with the cryptic slogan ‘we grew here, you flew here’‘.  Concurrently, countries that have been prominently committed to multiculturalism--Canada, the Netherlands, and Britain--also experienced a retreat from multiculturalism policies (Joppke 2004).

Over decades of changes in policy approaches towards migration, some settlement issues have stubbornly persisted and remained prominent for migrants in Australia. These issues include: difficulties with English language acquisition, the negotiation of belonging across different contexts, cultural adaptation, inter-generational tensions, social isolation and related exclusionary problems (Burnett 1998; Levitas et al. 2007). Although these issues have impacted both early migrants and recent arrivals, the current social and political context has focused on migrant youth as the primary demographic segment.


Cultural diversity and tensions

Australia continues to experience populist and exclusionary discourses around notions of national identity and this developed traction over the past decades through the emergence of a new global context shaped by the so-called ‘war on terror’. This new set of conditions has made it difficult for some cultural groups to establish a strong sense of belonging and active participation in social life.

Migrant youth represents a particularly sensitive category in these critical processes. This is because their engagement with different government and non-government agencies as well as family and school networks can impact heavily on processes of identity formation that are inherently dynamic and ‘necessarily multiple and fluid’ (Noble and Tabar 2002: 128). Negotiating identities in the context of these conditions remains a highly contested endeavour. Sustained immigration intake into Australia (DIAC 2011a: 5-6; DIAC 2011b: 1) have created increased demands on government and non-government agencies to provide the support and services required to facilitate settlement.

The climate of perceived social and intercultural tensions in many émigré societies, including Australia, requires the need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the complex cultural adjustment processes. Both formal and informal networks formed by migrant youth in different contexts have the capacity to impact on the ways which migrant youth develop and articulate a sense of individual and group belonging. These networks are often inter-linked and can operate in as complementary or, in the case of informal networks, as substitutes for formal networks and social services (Pichler and Wallace 2007: 427). As such, social networks strongly influence the lived experiences of belonging among young people. Our focus on migrant youth, rather than migrants in general, was underpinned by the hypothesised divergent experiences youth not only encounter through their participation in social networks but also through creating new forms of networking.  We were also interested in the issues of intergenerational relations, and youth cultural competencies.

Research on migrant youth

This research project explored the above-stated inter-connected issues within the broader question of social integration among young people of migrant background. Integration is understood as a process through which individuals and groups are able to maintain their cultural identity while actively participating in the larger societal framework (Korac 2001). This project focused specifically on multiple networks which contextualise the identities of migrant youth. While cultural factors are considered critical indicators of successful integration into the host community (Abu Laban et al. 2000; ECRE 2001), not enough research has been conducted into the ways in which social networks can impinge upon the formation of cultural identity and belonging amongst migrant youth. This  project, therefore, aims to fill an important gap in existing literature on migrant integration and social cohesion (Daley 2007), particularly in the context of discussions about young people’s subjective re-negotiation of individual and group identities (Berry 1997).


One of the key objectives of this project is to explore the notion of active citizenship which is a comparatively recent concept. In contrast to traditional understanding of citizenship as an appropriation of rights and responsibilities, newer forms of citizenship emphasise active involvement and engagement in the practices of citizenship. The idea that the active side of citizenship needs to be emphasised has received strong support from leading contemporary scholars. Isin (2008: 7) believes that ‘critical studies of citizenship over the last two decades have taught us that what is important is not only that citizenship is a legal status but that it also involves practices of making citizens – social, political, cultural and symbolic’.  According to Zaff and colleagues (2010), an active citizen is a person who possesses a set of civic skills and behaviours, such as: sense of civic self-efficacy, social connections with community, and responsibility to community.

There are many individual and social benefits associated with active civic engagement, including positive contributions to individual development, family and community well-being. Zaff and colleagues (2010: 736) maintain that ‘when young people are active citizens and actively engaged in improving the well-being of their communities and their country, their own development is enhanced and civil society benefits’. Mutually beneficial contributions to self and to society are the cornerstones of Lerner’s (2004) theory of positive youth development which is possible in a society that values and supports civic initiatives and individual contributions. Zaff et al. (2010: 764) believe that ‘understanding and enhancing youth engagement in civil societies is a critical facet in programs and policies aimed at maintaining and enhancing democracy’. We uphold the idea of active citizenship and use empirical data to demonstrate how active citizenship may be manifested in practice among migrant youth, particularly through involvement in social networks and creative engagement in social justice issues.