Migration & COVID-19: Do we really know who’s leaving Sydney?

Major upheavals to our movement (or lack of) has marked this year under the restrictions of COVID-19. These changes have come with a lot of commentary (including from me) about the big decline in migration to Australia’s capital cities, largely driven by a drop in arrivals.

But looking at all cities together hides important differences between states. This month the ABS released internal migration estimates comparing the June quarter 2019 and March and June quarters 2020 – and it is showing us the story of movement around specific Australian cities..

Greater Melbourne was the only capital city to have more people leaving for elsewhere in Australia in 2020 compared to 2019 June quarter. All other capitals had fewer people leaving. COVID-19 restrictions and border closures have deeply affected both the ability to move, and the need to move. This makes sense when you think about all the new norms – where people can work from home, and where university courses are delivered online, for example.  

Migration patterns in Sydney

In Sydney, we see a different pattern to Melbourne. The net internal migration loss from Greater Sydney in 2020 was almost 1,000 people lower than in 2019. This was caused by a combination of both fewer arrivals (1,820) and departures (2,799).

While recent migration estimates don’t have detailed age breakdowns, they show that even during the pandemic there are two enduring patterns affecting internal migration.

First, more people leave Greater Sydney for other parts of Australia than arrive from elsewhere. This is an enduring pattern of internal migration that includes moves to other capital cities and regional areas.

Second, people leaving Greater Sydney are highest among people in their late 20s and early 30s alongside children under 15. This reflects family moves out of Sydney when the children are still young. The ages where more people arrive than leave Sydney are among people in their 20s, reflecting moves for tertiary education and job opportunities for new labour entrants.

Understanding changing patterns

In some ways, the similarity of historical data with the recently released estimates is reassuring, indicating less radical change than we might have been expecting in a year of such dramatic change. But for Sydney we will have to monitor if the movement remains lower in the months to come or reverts to patterns seen in previous years. These changes affect both the size of our population and its age profile with implications for service and infrastructure demand.


More pressing will be whether we start to see changes in the age profiles. In the past, the movement of young people to the city was augmented by people coming from overseas for study and work but this hasn’t happened in 2020. Age is the key factor influencing the types of goods and services we use, and the types of households we live in so this change affects all parts of our community. It also means an older age profile for Sydney affecting labour force supply and demand and infrastructure needs.

The one pattern we can be can be sure of at the moment is that less people are moving from place to place. That means our understanding of patterns of movement has to change – as what we know about people effects how we plan places. For those people who might have moved without the pandemic are staying in Greater Sydney, along with their needs for housing, jobs, services and infrastructure. Taking what we know about these populations will make sure we can plan our places that reflect people’s needs and aspirations.   

If you want to talk more about population and how changes are having an impact at a local level contact our in-house demographer, Dr Kim Johnstone.