Opinion: Fitting in or falling out: how African migrants adapt to life in Australia

The following opinion piece authored by Adjunct Fellow, Dr Victor Counted from the School of Social Sciences, and Distinguished Professor Andre Renzaho from the School of Medicine and Translational Health Research Institute, was first published with full links on The Conversation (opens in a new window).

As of 2020, over 281 million of the world’s population live outside their country of birth. Australia hosts millions of these world’s migrants. It is one of the top 10 countries of destination for migrants. Australia’s demographic and cultural profile has also shifted over the years as a result of migration. This is because in recent decades, the country’s immigration policies have evolved from focusing on attracting migrants from the United Kingdom to attracting skilled migrants to boost the economy and address skills shortages.

Migration is the main driver of the country’s population growth. Although England, New Zealand, China, India and the Philippines are the main countries of birth of migrants to Australia, an increasing number are Africans. About 400,000 people of African origin were living in Australia in 2020. This represents 1.6% of the Australian population and 5.1% of Australia’s overseas-born population. Most (58%) are white South Africans but 42% are black Africans from sub-Saharan countries. Not all adjust well to the Australian society because of its predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture.

People migrating to another country inevitably go through a period of adjustment. These cultural, physical and psychological changes are known as acculturation. Negotiating these changes in a new cultural environment can occur at the group as well as the individual level. They involve varying pathways and strategies with four possible orientations: separation, assimilation, integration, or marginalisation.

The traditional or separation strategy is loyal to traditional home culture and resists the host culture.

Assimilation strategy rejects traditional home culture and fully embraces the host culture.

Integration strategy seeks to retain one’s cultural identity while attempting to embrace the host culture.

Marginalisation strategy rejects traditional home culture and fails to relate to the host culture.

African migrants’ strategies

We conducted a study to identify the acculturation strategies among African migrants in Australia. We wanted to understand how their region of origin, religion and various forms of discrimination they experienced might influence their acculturation. This insight could help guide the design of effective programmes to address any difficulties that might arise when adapting to a new culture.

We had 425 participants, having excluded white migrants from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

We found that the majority of African migrants – 34% – identified as integrated. Twenty percent described themselves as traditional, 22% as assimilated, and 24% as marginalised.

We also examined how demographic and socio-economic factors influenced acculturation strategies.

Our study found that older people were a little more likely to remain loyal to their home culture, rejecting the dominant Australian culture.

African migrants who’d lived in large towns or cities before migrating were less likely to keep separate. They saw the host culture as something to strive towards. And they were more likely to assimilate than those who came from refugee camps.

These findings suggest that migrants from cities in Africa may have started the assimilation process prior to migration. This could be a result of urban growth and digital media that exposed them to western cultural values.

Compared to migrants from central Africa, English speaking eastern Africans were less likely to reject their traditional home culture, because they were already assimilated prior to migration. They considered themselves a part of the English-speaking Australian culture and blended in.

We also found that African migrants who felt they didn’t fit in were more likely to integrate: to retain their cultural identity while embracing a new culture. Those who reported being discriminated against were more likely to remain traditional or loyal to their home culture while rejecting the host culture.

Our study found that Christian African migrants were less likely to integrate compared to their Muslim counterparts. This is because Christian migrants were already integrated with the Australian predominantly Christian culture before migrating. Those practising religions other than Islam or Christianity were more likely to separate.

Adjusting to a host culture

Social media, language proficiency and religious familiarity may have shaped the way migrants from Africa adjust to their new environments. But individual and group experiences of pre-migration environments and post-migration encounters, such as discrimination, may continue to shape how they adjust and adapt to a host culture.

Future research might seek to examine the factors that result in changing acculturation orientations and how frequently they change.

Communities that want to help African migrants adapt to their new life can consider initiatives like educational programmes, anti-racism policies and legislative reforms. They could also promote tolerance and acceptance of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity in the wider community.


13 July 2021

Media Unit

The Conversation