Australia is an ethnically diverse nation. In 2000, an estimated 24% of Australians were born overseas, with more than half of these residents born in a non-English-speaking country. Those born in the United Kingdom & Ireland were the largest group of overseas-born (27%), followed by New Zealand (8%), Italy (5%) and Vietnam (4%) (ABS 2001).

Although immigrants come from diverse regions of the world, almost all demonstrate good, if not better, health on arrival and for some years following than does the Australian-born population. This better health is reflected in longer life expectancy, lower death and hospitalisation rates, and a lower prevalence of some lifestyle-related risk factors. This phenomenon has been explained by the ‘healthy migrant effect’, with health requirements and eligibility criteria ensuring that generally only those in good health migrate to Australia.

The health status of immigrants can vary according to birthplace, age, socioeconomic status, fluency in English, and satisfaction with job and life in Australia (Kliewer & Jones 1997). Immigrants have different illness patterns from Australian-born residents, enjoying advantage for many conditions and disadvantage for some others. Immigrants also bring their own particular risk factors, such as diet and cultural practices, which may affect health. The health advantage seen on arrival is known to become smaller with increasing length of residence in Australia (Young 1992).