Australia has been receiving migrants for thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years. For so long in fact that the first migrants simply walked here when Australia was connected to other parts of the globe and not an island as it is now. It’s probably deceptive to the highest degree to claim that migration to Australia has been happening even before Australia was known as Australia.
Deceptive? Maybe, but definitely important because discussions about migration in the present day are usually tinted with the idea that some migrants are more legitimate than others. Migration here has been happening in waves for decades, centuries, millennia. It’s only become an issue from the time we decided to erect borders and say: “our land is not your land” to anyone knocking on the door.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to sight what is now Australia. They didn’t really know it as Australia of course, but rather as New Holland (of course). The Dutch first arrived in what is now Cape York and explored a great deal of Northern Australia. They had an understanding that this great land mass existed to the south of what is now Indonesia and what was then the traditional stomping ground of the Dutch East India Company, but they never bothered settling here.
The land was proclaimed and charted as New Holland and they moved on. Since the Dutch never felt a desire to colonise New Holland migration laws were not necessary. Lack of desire to colonise aside, they did explore as far down to what we know as Tasmania and what they named Van Diemen’s Land. This is where we start to enter the myth of the Terra Australis Incognita, the Great Unknown Southern Land.
The English, not to be outdone in the desire to expand their empire commissioned a well respected admiral, a certain James Cook to sail on to Tahiti to observe the passing of Venus and then to search for the fabled Unknown Southern Land. Cook’s initial destination was Van Diemen’s Land, he wanted to see if Van Diemen’s Land was actually connected to the Unknown Southern Land. On 20 April 1970 James Cook spotted land, although he noted that he didn’t think this land he sighted was part of Van Diemen’s Land he didn’t come ashore. He continued up along the coast due north, charting as he went. He finally came ashore at Botany Bay.
So far, nothing resembling immigration laws have come about. Sure there has been a lot of flag planting and land claiming but there hasn’t been a push by any of the great naval powers at the time to actually settle here. Not the Portuguese, nor the Dutch or the English. Probably distracted by their empire ambitions elsewhere, the Great Unknown Southern Land lay here, claimed by many but not settled by any European. It’s a bit rich to claim that Europeans ‘discovered’ Australia, or indeed, that Australia was here waiting to be discovered. All of this would have been news to the many, many Aboriginal inhabitants already living and thriving here.
We do not known if the many Aboriginal groups living in Australia had laws that could be said to be immigration laws or something similar to them. Evidence exists of Aboriginal nations having boundaries from each other and set territory but they certainly did not have nation-states in the way we know them today. Most nation-states as we know them today didn’t even exist, the notion of a nation-state being an European invention itself which had been actively taking shape since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. If no nation-states exist, then it’s difficult to have the structure and the system that allows for immigration laws to also exist.
For starters, you need to have a defined border. Not only do you need a set border, you need to know where that border is and more importantly you need everyone else to know where that border is. You also need a central authority that is tasked with protecting that border from intrusion or any other sort of invasion. You need a system to allow the transfer of people or goods between borders as well as an infrastructure to deal with any breaches. And finally, and probably most importantly you need the authority from within and the recognition from outside that you, as a central unit have the power and authority to do all of these things combined.
Yes, there had been a lot of flag planting, a lot of land proclaiming and a lot of confused Aboriginal people wondering what was going on with these crazy white people. Yet, Australia was not a nation at all, not in the modern sense anyway, with borders, governments or codified laws. Therefore true immigration laws could not exist because there was no general recognition of Australia as a place, let alone a country. Most of it had not even been charted by Europeans. The English saw this land as a terra nullius, an empty land, there for the taking (It wasn’t until 1992 that this notion was debunked).
So on the 26th of January 1778 the English came not to visit, but to live, bringing a large number of their own convicts with them as well as all the English laws they could possibly ever need, and so begins our immigration story.