Afghans in Australia

The history of Afghan migration to Australia dates back to more than 150 years ago, with the arrival of the Afghan cameleers in Australia in the mid-19th Century. The Afghan cameleers were employed to explore the inhospitable heart of Australia with their ‘ships of the deserts’, as the traditional horses and wagons used for such expeditions were not suitable for the harsh conditions of the outback. The cameleers were collectively known as Afghans though a number of them came from other countries and regions as well.

The cameleers provided a thriving camel transportation business which became the backbone of the Australian outback economy. For 60 years, the settlement and development of inland areas of Australia were dependent on these first Afghan migrants.

They played a crucial role in the development of major transport facilities for the wool and mining industries and the success of major infrastructure projects such as the overland Telegraph and the railway between Adelaide and Darwin which came to be known as the ‘Afghan Express’ and later ‘The Ghan’ in their honour. Today the Ghan's emblem is an Afghan on a camel in recognition of the efforts of the Afghan cameleers.

Port Augusta, South Australia: A view of an Afghan with a wagon which is pulled by two camels in Port Augusta, circa 1930.
Photo credit: Library of South Australia

In the towns where they settled, so-called Ghantowns, the cameleers would often build a mosque that would not only serve as a place of worship, but also as a gathering place that offered them a sense of community.
The remains of the oldest mosque in Australia which was built in 1861, are near Hergott Springs, Marree in South Australia. This was once one of the country's most important camel junctions and had been known as Little Asia or Little Afghanistan. The oldest permanent mosque in Australia is reportedly the Adelaide Mosque. The building is of national significance as one of the few relics of Afghan immigration to South Australia and embodies in built form, Afghan and Islamic culture.

The Mosque at Hergott Springs, circa 1884. The pool in the foreground was used by worshippers for washing their feet before entering the Mosque.
Photo credit: Library of South Australia

Perhaps the most successful Afghan cameleer was entrepreneur Abdul Wade (Wahid), known as the ‘Prince of the Afghans’. Abdul Wade arrived in Australia in 1879 and in 1893 he began importing camels and recruiting Afghan cameleers for the Bourke Camel Carrying Co., New South Wales. In 1895, he was appointed manager and overseer of the company.
In 1903, Abdul Wade purchased Wangamanna station in New South Wales, which he established as a camel breeding and carrying business. At the height of his success, Abdul Wade’s company reportedly owned between 600 and 700 camels.

“The man in the suit and hat, holding the camel, is Abdul Wade who was a very influential camel merchant in New South Wales and Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”
Photo and caption credit: State Library of Queensland.

By the early 20th century, motorised and rail transport became more developed and Afghan migration was restricted under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth), leading to a decline in the Afghan population of Australia until the 1980s.
In the ensuing period until 1979, Afghan migration was limited to a small number of students associated with the Colombo Plan who came to study in Australia and chose to stay after completing their studies.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered a wave of refugees who sought safety in many countries including Australia. Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, but the ongoing civil war and subsequent ascendancy of the Taliban resulted in more Afghan refugees arriving in Australia.

This trend continued following the terror attacks on the United States and the subsequent deployment of Western forces in Afghanistan. As tensions continue, particularly during the Taliban regime, refugees from Afghanistan continue to seek protection in Australia.

Afghanistan is one of Australia’s largest sources of permanent migrants. The latest Census in 2016 recorded almost 70,000 people whose fathers were born in Afghanistan. Of these, 40,383 were male and 29,536 were female. This includes 14,744 Australian-born Afghans, which constitutes 21.1% of the Afghan community in Australia.

The 2016 distribution by state and territory showed Victoria had the largest number of Afghan Australians (27,144), followed by New South Wales (19,804), South Australia (8,980), Western Australia (7,314) and Queensland (5,212).
The median age of people in Australia who were born in Afghanistan was 31 years.The most common religion amongst Afghan-born Australians was Islam (91.2%), followed by no religion (3.4%).

Of the population born in Afghanistan who live in Australia, 33.0% were attending an educational institution. There were 3.7% in primary school, 7.4% in secondary school and 13.3% in a tertiary or technical institution. 21.6% reported having completed Year 12 as their highest level of educational attainment, 5.6% had completed an Advanced Diploma or Diploma and 8.9% had completed Bachelor Degree level and above.

Afghans are engaged in a wide range of occupations, they work as technicians and trades workers, labourers, machinery operators and drivers, community and personal service workers and professionals.
Afghans have lived and worked in Australia for over 150 years, and the Afghan community continues to make significant economic and social contributions to Australian society today.