Early voyagers

Remains of a Macassan fire place, Bremar Island, Northern Territory, 1974 (NAA: A6135, K10/12/74/9)

Muslim fishermen and traders from Macassar in southern Sulawesi had begun to visit Australia's shores by the 18th century. They sailed their praus from the eastern islands of modern Indonesia along the continent's north and north-west coast, fishing for trepang and trading for pearls and pearl shell with the local Aboriginal people. It was a relationship that lasted across many generations.

Over the centuries the Macassans left traces of their language behind in the vocabularies of the Aboriginal tribes they visited. Macassan ships and artefacts were also represented in Aboriginal art.

With European colonisation, the free and easy ways of the Macassan fishermen were bound to change. The imposition of customs dues, jealousy over the trepang trade and anti-Asian attitudes gradually severed the old historical links.

But the European ships brought other Muslims – as convicts, settlers and sailors. In the 1790s a group of stranded Muslim seamen were forced to make new lives on Norfolk Island. Several later settled in Van Diemen's Land. A number of Muslim convicts, from countries such as India, Oman and Iraq, were transported to the Australian colonies in the early decades of the 19th century.


  • Mary Lucille Jones, 'Muslim impact on early Australian life', in Mary Lucille Jones (ed.), An Australian Pilgrimage: Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Victoria Press in association with the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 31–48
  • Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: A Brief History, The Islamic Council of Victoria, 2002

Afghans and Indians

Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test issued to Mahommeddeen, an Indian camel driver, 25 February 1921 (NAA: E752, 1921/5, p.3)

The first Muslims to settle in Australia arrived as camel drivers in the 19th century. These cameleers were never meant to stay, to put down roots, or lead normal family lives. When their contracts ended they were meant to leave. Some did, but others remained, often clinging to the margins of society.

This first generation accompanied exploring expeditions across the outback. Their camel teams provided critical transport links, carrying mail and water at a time when railways were few and far between. The pioneering contribution of the cameleers helped to open up remote inland areas of Australia.

No official records were kept of the number of cameleers who lived and worked in Australia. Over the period from the late 1880s to the 1920s, some researchers estimate that there were between 2000 and 4000 cameleers, while others place the figure at closer to 6000.

In the wake of the camel men came the hawkers, their horse-drawn carts filled with merchandise for remote farming communities. The hawkers were often supplied with goods by Indian and Syrian merchants. These merchants were generally better educated than the cameleers and hawkers. They invested their capital in property and often built up substantial businesses.

See Cameleers and hawkers in Stories


  • Michael Cigler, The Afghans in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne, 1986
  • Christine Stevens, 'Afghan camel drivers: Founders of Islam in Australia', in Mary Lucille Jones (ed.), An Australian Pilgrimage: Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Victoria Press in association with the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 49–62
  • Christine Stevens, Tin Mosques & Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989


Dr Helmi, the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, opens a mosque in Shepparton, Victoria, 1960 (NAA: A1501, A2360/2)

A mountain people

Albanians are an ancient mountain people who have used their terrain to resist invaders and preserve their ethnic identity. Ruled by the Islamic Ottoman Empire for 450 years, Albania was predominantly Muslim by the time the Balkan Wars brought an end to the occupation in 1912.

Rivalries and conflicts among the nations of Europe created much hardship for the people of Albania. During World War I, forces from Italy, Serbia, Greece, and France all sought a foothold within their territory. International agreements fixed the country's boundaries, but divided many ethnic Albanians between neighbouring states, imposing new social and economic stresses.

Life in Albania has always been a struggle – the land is as hard as the country's history, and families are traditionally large. In the hope of improvement, Albanians have often looked abroad for opportunities. A number of Albanians educated in Turkey under the Ottoman Empire improved their lot by serving in the Turkish army or administration. Others went further afield, emigrating to the United States, Canada and eventually, Australia.


Albanians began to consider Australia as a possible destination in the 1920s, when the United States imposed strict limits on immigration from Southern Europe. As European Muslims, Albanians were not excluded under the White Australia Policy. However, the sudden increase in arrivals from Albania in 1924 worried Australian officials, who sought to limit the issue of visas to around 100 per month.

At the time, there was growing concern about the impact of Southern European immigration. Any 'influx', it was argued, threatened both the jobs of Australian workers, and the nation's British character. The racial qualities of Southern Europeans were compared unfavourably with immigrants from countries such as France, Sweden and Norway. It was assumed that 'nordic' types would be more easily integrated into Australian society.

There were also fears that Albanians, in particular, might become a burden on the state. Jobs in Australia were not as easy to obtain as the advertising of shipping companies had led them to believe. In January 1925, authorities in Western Australia reported that 36 Albanians were being fed and housed by the State Charities Department.

To restrict entry to those classes clearly able to support themselves, the government required intending migrants to have £40 'landing money'. In 1929 explicit quotas were introduced, limiting the number of visas issued to Yugoslavs, Albanians, Greeks, Poles, Estonians and Czechoslovaks. Only 25 Albanians were to be admitted each month. With the onset of the Great Depression, quotas were cut again.

Making lives

Gaining entry to Australia was only the first of many trials that faced Albanian immigrants. Their lack of English made it difficult to secure employment, even though most were young and single, eager for opportunity, and accustomed to hard labour. Eventually they found jobs, such as land clearing and cane cutting, in rural areas of Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria. The work could be back-breaking and living conditions were often primitive, but gradually these pioneers established a foothold. By 1933, there were 770 Albanians in Australia.

Already struggling on the fringes of Australian society, immigrants were amongst those hardest hit by the coming of the Great Depression. Work became even scarcer, prompting some Albanians to try their luck on the Western Australian goldfields. In 1931, the Albanian government was disturbed by reports of its country folk becoming stranded in Australia – unable to find work, or afford the passage home. A discounted fare was made available and advertised by Australian authorities.

Most remained and, as conditions improved, Albanians began to build lives, families and communities. Some moved from Queensland to establish orchards and market gardens around Shepparton in Victoria. In the 1960s, the Victorian Albanian community worked to found mosques in both Shepparton and Melbourne.

In Western Australia, Albanians settled as farmers in the wheat and sheep areas of York and Northam. They sent for their fiancés or brides to join them (arranged marriages were still traditional). For Eid festivities the men and their families would drive down to the Perth Mosque, founded in 1905, and join together with the small community of Muslims from Pakistan, Malaysia, Bosnia and elsewhere.

From aliens to citizens

Albania was occupied once again in the months leading up to World War II. Italy, which already exerted considerable political and economic control over its neighbour, invaded in April 1939 and established a puppet government. When war came, Albanians in Australia were declared to be 'enemy aliens'. Their details were registered, and their movements and activities were monitored.

Most Albanians opposed the occupation, and Australian authorities did not seem to regard them as a significant threat. Albanians who professed 'anti-Italian' sentiments were even allowed to be naturalised. Some served in the armed forces. But in 1942 the heightened fear of invasion, as well as reports of fascist sympathisers among some Italian and Albanian settlers, led to widespread internments in Queensland. Eighty-four Albanians were interned, although most were released after seven or eight months in camps at Enoggera and Cowra. Some were later called up to work on construction projects with the Civil Aliens Corps.

Albania suffered greatly during the war. Many villages were destroyed and thousands were left homeless. Italy's surrender brought no respite, as German forces moved in to take the country. Armed groups formed to resist the occupation opposed each other politically. Their rivalry descended into civil war, with the communist-led National Liberation Movement eventually emerging victorious.

Seeking to escape communist rule, or simply hoping for a new life, many Albanians made their way to refugee camps. More than 200 were admitted to Australia under the Displaced Persons Scheme.

See A displaced person in Stories

After years of hardship and uncertainty, some Albanians left Australia in the years following the war. But others decided to make a commitment to their new home, applying for naturalisation. Applicants were questioned by authorities, who sometimes wanted to know why they had left their wives behind in Albania. Their answers reveal how hard the Albanian immigrants had worked over the years, how little they earned, and how long it took before they were able to save enough money to pay for a ticket on board a ship.


  • B Bregu et al., 'Albanians', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 265–66
  • Mary Lucille Jones, 'The years of decline: Australian Muslims 1900–40', in Mary Lucille Jones (ed.), An Australian Pilgrimage: Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Victoria Press in association with the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 63–86
  • Nahid Kabir, Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations, and Cultural History, Kegan Paul, London, 2004
  • Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in Western Australia, 1870–1970', Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 12, part 5, 2005, pp. 550–65
  • Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in a "White Australia": Colour or religion?', Immigrants & Minorities, vol. 24, no. 2, July 2006, pp. 193–223


Members of the Islamic Society of Victoria, including Sheikh Fehmi, examine a model of a planned new mosque in Melbourne, 1975 (NAA: A6180, 25/7/75/37)

The Lebanese have a long history of migration to Australia, but prior to 1975 the vast majority of immigrants were Christian. Until World War I, Lebanon, as we know it today, was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. With the break-up of the Ottoman territories in 1920, Lebanon came under the mandate of France. It finally gained independence in 1943.

Prior to the World War I, Lebanese immigrants coming to Australia were issued with Turkish documents. This angered some of the Lebanese who were fleeing Turkish persecution. To add to the confusion, Australian officials often classified Lebanese as Syrians, as Lebanon fell within the Ottoman province of Syria. It was not until after World War II that the term 'Lebanese' was widely adopted.

Two waves

In the early 1950s, a small number of Muslim families arrived from North Lebanon. However, the first real wave of Lebanese-Muslim immigration began in the 1960s. These were mainly Sunni Muslims who, once established, sponsored the migration of further family members.

The pace and scale of Lebanese-Muslim migration changed dramatically after 1975, when civil war broke out in Lebanon. Most arrivals continued to be sponsored by existing residents, but many of the usual requirements for entry into Australia (such as health and security checks) were held in abeyance or waived on humanitarian grounds. Between 1975 and 1977, about 14,000 Lebanese Muslims arrived in Australia.

Lebanese Muslims came to Australia late in the history of Lebanese immigration. Unlike the well-established Lebanese-Christian community, they lacked the church structures and organisations to help them adjust to their new life. The new arrivals mostly settled in industrial areas of Melbourne and Sydney. They joined Turkish and other migrants on assembly lines at factories like Ford and Leyland.

Later, Australian-born generations became tertiary qualified professionals, building on their immigrant parents' sacrifices and living out their dreams. By 1981 there were 17,000 Lebanese Muslims living in Australia.

In Sydney, the Muslim-Lebanese population became concentrated in the Canterbury area. It was here, in the 1960s, that Sunni Muslims converted a modest house into their first mosque. It was very different in size and architecture to the magnificent Lakemba Mosque, built by the community in the 1970s.

While the majority of Lebanese Muslims are Sunnis, there is also a sizable Shi'ite minority with their own mosques and organisations. Shi'ite Muslims settled around Arncliffe in Sydney, establishing the Al-Zahra Mosque in 1983. Relations between the two Islamic sects are amicable in Australia.

In Melbourne, most Lebanese live in the suburbs of Brunswick, Coburg, Preston, Northcote, Wiliamstown and Newport. Through the efforts of their leading imam, Sheikh Fehmi, the Lebanese were always well represented in the early Islamic Society of Victoria and in the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC).

See A remarkable journey in Stories

By the late 1970s, institutional Islam was entrenched in Australia through the building of mosques, Islamic schools and a plethora of religious societies and cultural organisations, some ethnic specific, others multicultural.


  • Andrew and Trevor Batrouney, The Lebanese in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne, 1985
  • Trevor Batrouney, 'Lebanese community life in Melbourne', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 680–2
  • Michael Humphrey, 'Muslim Lebanese', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 677–80
  • James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001


The crew of a pearl lugger, Broome, c. 1900–20 (NAA: K1349, WA00272 [A])

Pearl divers

Muslims were crucial to the development of the pearlshelling industry along Australia's northern coast. In the late 19th century, so-called 'Malays' from South-East Asia were brought to Australia to work as indentured labourers in the shell-rich waters around Thursday Island, Darwin and Broome. Employed as divers, cooks, pump hands, and crewmen, Malays provided shellers with a source of cheap labour. The work was dangerous, and exploitation was common.

By the turn of the century, Broome was the world's major pearlshelling centre. It was home to a varied and sometimes explosive mix of cultures, that included Malays as well as Japanese, Chinese, 'Koepangers' (usually from Timor) and Aboriginal people. Living conditions were basic, but in the 1930s the town's Muslims established a small mosque.

With the implementation of the White Australia Policy, non-European indentured labourers were excluded from most industries. But the shellers successfully lobbied for an exemption on economic and racial grounds. A Royal Commission agreed in 1916 that white workers were unsuited to the physical demands of pearlshelling. Malays continued to be employed in the industry until the 1970s.

In the postwar years, Malays were at the centre of controversies that highlighted difficulties in both the White Australia Policy and the indentured labour system. In 1947, the Chifley government attempted to deport a group of Malay seamen who had been admitted during the war as refugees. The plight of these men, many of whom had married Australian women, won considerable public sympathy.

At about the same time, leaders of the Malay community in Broome came into conflict with the pearlshellers when the Malays sought to improve their working conditions. At the urging of employers these 'troublemakers' were deported. Further deportations were thwarted in 1961, when students, unionists and others protested against the treatment of two Malay pearl divers. Public concern over such cases reflected growing unease with the operations of the White Australia Policy.

See The pearl diver in Stories

The Colombo Plan

In the 1950s and 1960s another group of Malays were treated very differently, often invited into the lives and homes of ordinary Australians. Under a cooperative development scheme known as the Colombo Plan, thousands of students from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and India came to Australia to attend local tertiary institutions.

Under the Colombo Plan, Australia provided economic and technical assistance to South and South-East Asian countries. By contributing to social and economic development, it was hoped to maintain security and stability within the region, steering Australia's neighbours clear of communism. Australian policy-makers also expected that the positive relationships established under the scheme would help defuse criticism in Asia of the White Australia Policy.

The Colombo Plan certainly changed perceptions in Australia, where the presence of the friendly young Asian students contributed to the thawing of old, entrenched prejudices. The majority of the students were Muslims from middle-class families. Intelligent and usually proficient in English, they were quickly accepted by their Australian hosts. Friendships were forged as many Anglo-Celtic homes welcomed the newcomers.

The selection and arrival of the 2000th Colombo Plan student, an 'attractive Malayan girl', was the subject of extensive publicity both in Australia and Asia. Twenty-one-year-old Ummi Kelsom was an ideal ambassador for the scheme. The fifth child of an upper-middle class family, she spoke English fluently, and was both a badminton champion and a keen girl guide. She had even prepared for her visit to Australia by learning how to drive a Holden.

The students were happy to show off their own cultures. They attended barbecues and dances, although the Muslim students avoided drinking alcohol. Keen soccer players, they fitted in well with sports-mad Australians. The students formed their own teams and joined local soccer leagues.

Muslim students attended their local mosque and fasted and celebrated on the special Eid days. The young female students, most of whom trained as nurses, wore the modest Malayan dress of sarong and kebaya, with a thin scarf over one shoulder. They did not wear veils or the hijab, often associated with Muslim women today.

After completing their courses in fields such as nursing, engineering, business studies and economics, most Colombo Plan students returned to their homelands. Many of them later became leaders in their own societies: senior public servants, politicians, economic planners, businessmen and educators. They often maintained links with Australia, visiting regularly, and even sending their children for schooling. This generation of leadership helped significantly to develop trade and diplomatic links with Australia.

Cocos and Christmas Islanders

The Australian-administered territories of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island are home to several hundred Malays. The Cocos-Malays are descended from workers brought to the Cocos Islands in the 19th century to harvest copha. They are Muslim, and have maintained much of their own culture and traditions. Australia took control of the islands in 1955.

Chinese and Malay indentured labourers were introduced to Christmas Island when British interests undertook phosphate mining there in the 1890s. The industry expanded significantly in the 1950s, attracting many workers from the Cocos Islands. Christmas Island became an Australian territory in 1958, but indentured labour arrangements continued until the 1970s.

In recent decades, the Muslim population of Western Australia has been boosted by arrivals from the two territories. By 1981, there were more Cocos Islanders on mainland Australia than in the islands themselves. Communities in Port Hedland and Katanning have built their own mosques. In Katanning, Malay participation in the halal meat industry has increased the town's economic prosperity.


  • JPS Bach, 'The pearlshelling industry and the "White Australia" policy', Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol. 10, no. 38, May 1962, pp. 203–13
  • Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: A Brief History, The Islamic Council of Victoria, 2002
  • Nahid Kabir, Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations, and Cultural History, Kegan Paul, London, 2004
  • Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in Western Australia, 1870–1970', Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 12, part 5, 2005, pp. 550–65
  • L Manderson, 'Malays', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 691–3
  • Daniel Oakman, Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2004
  • Gwenda Tavan, The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, Scribe, Melbourne, 2005


Turk Sesi, a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne, 1971 (NAA: A12111, 1/1971/13/29)

By 1901 Australia was home to a small population from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. This group, of around 200, included ethnic Jews, Armenians, Georgians and Greeks. Only a minority were Muslim. There was also a much larger number from the Ottoman province of Syria. These were mostly Christians from what is now known as Lebanon. Deciding who was Turkish proved difficult for Australian authorities seeking clear-cut racial divisions.

The Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany in World War I. As a result, Turkish-born residents were declared to be enemy aliens and placed under surveillance. Some were interned, or released on parole, required to report weekly to police.

But who was a Turk? Exceptions were eventually made for settlers from countries occupied by the Turkish Empire. Authorities declared that a Turkish subject who was 'by race a Greek, Armenian or Syrian or a member of any other community known to be opposed to Turkish rule and to be a Christian' was to be free of the restrictions imposed on enemy aliens.

In defeat, the Turkish Empire was carved up by the Allied powers. Internal fighting finally brought the overthrow of the Ottoman rulers and the establishment of the modern state of Turkey.

In 1920 the Australian Government legislated to block immigration from its wartime enemies. This prohibition was lifted for most countries in 1925, but Turks remained unwelcome for another five years. Even then, it was only 'Ottoman' or 'European' Turks, assumed to be more assimilable in their looks and habits, who were considered for settlement. 'Asian Turks' remained subject to the strictures of the White Australia Policy.

The question of whether Turkey was part of Europe or Asia continued to trouble Australian authorities. In 1969 the Turkish Embassy complained about their country's classification under 'Asia' in government statistics. While sympathetic to the Turkish request, Australian officials argued they were merely following the example of the United Nations.

Turkish Cypriot Muslims

Turkish-Cypriot Muslims first settled in Australia in the late 1940s. The island of Cyprus was a British colony and its residents were British subjects. This perhaps helped intending migrants to be classified as 'European'. The Turkish-Cypriots who came at this time were mainly skilled tradesmen.

The small community that arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s was settled by the time the first wave of immigrants from Turkey arrived in the 1960s. The early group were able to support and mentor the later Turks, who arrived under the Australian–Turkish Assisted Passage Scheme of 1968.

Well-known community leader Ibrahim Dellal was a Turkish-Cypriot who emigrated in 1950. Six years later he married his wife Sheila, an Australian-born woman of Irish descent. Over a span of 60 years, he has witnessed the development of Australia's Turkish community. Ibrahim is an incredibly energetic man whose communication skills, vision and unflagging enthusiasm has helped to establish mosques, Turkish schools, newspapers and community organisations. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2007 for his services to the Islamic and Turkish communities.

A turning point

Official immigration from the Turkish mainland did not begin until 1968, with the advent of the Australian–Turkish Assisted Passage Scheme. This bilateral agreement was signed in 1967. Between 1968 and 1971, thousands of Turkish families arrived, lifting the number of Turks in Australia from 1544 to 11,589. The total Muslim population increased to 22,311. The scheme marked a turning point in the history of Muslim migration to Australia.

The Australian economy needed migrant workers for its expanding manufacturing industries in Melbourne and Sydney, and there was a decline in the number of British migrants. Unlike existing guest worker schemes in Europe, the Australian program encouraged Turks to bring their families and settle permanently. It was hoped that wives would also work outside the home in local factories.

Occupational categories recruited were mainly semi-skilled craft and production process workers, and unskilled labourers. Although the agreement aimed for an intake of 30 per cent skilled and 70 per cent unskilled, in the early years of the program, most of the workers were unskilled.

Attempts to attract Turkish professionals as part of the assisted passage arrangements were only partially successful. 'Loss of caste' was reported as one of the reasons why professionals were reluctant to apply. Turkish authorities seemed unwilling to help, forcing Australian representatives to work 'through the back door', securing professional migrants through alternative contacts.

Applicants with 'a good attitude' were favoured in the selection interviews. This usually meant young families with husbands prepared to accept any job 'including heavy manual or industrial at minimum wages'. The National Archives houses hundreds of these applications, with handwritten comments revealing the assessments of Australian officials in Ankara.

Johnny Turk and Gallipoli

Because of the respect between Turkish and Anzac soldiers that grew out of their wartime encounters, Turkish immigrants to Australia have generally not been regarded as 'typical Muslims'.

Nonetheless, first-generation Turkish migrants faced the same settlement problems as all immigrants from non-English speaking backgrounds: housing, employment, language, an unfamiliar culture, and occupational health and safety. Within a decade, a range of institutions and services had been established to improve the lives of Turkish migrants, reflecting the determination of a community that was here to stay.

See An assisted passenger in Stories

Childcare was a particular problem when husband and wife were both employed – often on shift work. Sometimes school-age children were left to look after their younger siblings. Many parents, especially fathers, felt ashamed that they were dependent on little children, learning English at school, to act as interpreters. At the end of a long day working on the assembly line, parents were too tired to attend the few English classes available, and learning English on the job was unknown at this time.  

By the late 1970s, community radio stations had hit the airwaves. Turkish-specific projects started to be funded by federal and state governments to address health and housing problems. With the establishment of mosques, schools and community organisations, along with Turkish language programs and newspapers, the lives of Turkish Australians became more fulfilling both religiously and economically. They realised that Australia was their new home.

The main population centre for Australian-Turks has been Auburn in Sydney, home to the magnificent Gallipoli Mosque, officially opened in 1999 after a construction period of 13 years. The first Auburn-Gallipoli mosque was built in 1979. The western suburbs in Melbourne near many of the industrial plants of the 1960s and 1970s are still home to many Turkish-Australians. The sizable populations in these areas have resulted in the development of many community services. The Turkish community founded their own mosque, the Fattih Mosque, in Coburg in 1971.


  • Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: A Brief History, The Islamic Council of Victoria, 2002
  • L Manderson, 'Turks', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 818–25
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