Afghans in Australia
The first Afghans that migrated to Australia arrived in the mid 19th century as cameleers. Over subsequent decades, they played a crucial role in facilitating British exploration of the country’s desert centre. Cameleers were prohibited from bringing their wives to Australia. Therefore, the Afghan demographic was almost entirely made up of men during this period. Further migration was prevented by the from 1901 until the 1970s. A second small wave of Afghan immigration commenced in the late 1970s and 1980s following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. However, the total number of Afghans in Australia remained relatively low. Most Afghan migration to Australia has occurred since the mid 1990s and continues today.
According to the 2016 census, at least 87% of the Afghan population has arrived since 1996 following the US invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of insurgent group. The majority (61.1%) migrated in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2015. The vast majority of Afghans in this wave of migration have been refugees accepted through Australia’s humanitarian program.
Most Afghan refugees and asylum seekers are likely to have been exposed to a range of traumatic experiences. These individuals are commonly:
- People of Hazara background fleeing persecution
- Intellectuals, journalists or activists
- Individuals who assisted the Australian mission in Afghanistan and were at risk of harm (e.g. interpreters)
- Women and children who arrived under the ‘Women at Risk’ humanitarian visa category
Many Afghan asylum seekers and refugees may have lived in a second country for many years before arriving in Australia (usually Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia or Malaysia). Conditions in these places are often dangerous and uncertain. Systematic harassment and local discrimination is common, and arbitrary arrest may occur.
More Afghan men have fled to Australia than women, as has been known to specifically target male Hazaras over the age of 12. However, some individuals have the opportunity to bring their wife and children to Australia on family visas. Further refugee migration is expected to continue, as the political situation remains fragile. Terrorist attacks continue to indicate that it is unsafe for many Afghans living in Australia to return.
Experience in Australia
Some Afghans encounter challenges adjusting to Australia’s culture. In Afghanistan, people generally know everyone in their community and socialise with their neighbours on a daily basis. Many individuals report feeling socially isolated from the Australian public in comparison. This can be particularly difficult for some women who customarily spend most of their time at home and rely on habitual visits of neighbours and family for most of their social interactions. Some may find that their domestic role is reduced by technology in Australia, resulting in boredom and a lack of physical and mental activity.
Afghan refugees may experience ongoing difficulty due to post-migration stressors such as unemployment, limited English proficiency, discrimination, news reports of continuing violence in Afghanistan, and anxiety for the safety of family members still in Afghanistan. Individuals with family remaining in Afghanistan tend to have an acute awareness and knowledge of the situation in their home country that can directly impact their mental health. For example, depressive states may correlate and fluctuate with tragic news from Afghanistan. This is particularly relevant for the Hazara community.
Afghan asylum seekers face particularly difficult settlement challenges due to their mode of arrival. The process to gain protection can be extremely difficult and traumatising. Those that arrive by boat are kept in forced detention for an indeterminate period while their claims for refugee status are assessed. These environments are widely understood to be detrimental to detainees’ mental health. Once they are released, they are ejected into major Australian cities with less cash and income support than is necessary to sustain basic survival. The burden of assisting them often falls on voluntary agencies and charities, and sympathetic Afghans already established within the Australian community.
The 2016 census showed that the Afghan population in Australia has one of the lowest median individual weekly incomes; the average Afghanistan-born person earns 54% of what the average Australia-born person earns.1 Furthermore, the visa conditions of many refugees and asylum seekers can limit their mobility and access to opportunities. While it is fair to assume that Afghans appreciate the safety and protection of Australia, some Afghans may feel unwelcome in Australia and restricted in what they can do.
This being said, the Afghan Australian community has been very resilient. As of 2016, roughly 21% were attending educational institutions and over 50% were employed (mostly in skilled managerial, professional or trade positions).2 Support for the Afghan community continues to grow, and cultural societies are increasing in size.