Ethiopian Culture

Ethiopians in Australia


Decades of natural disasters and political unrest have contributed to Ethiopian migration across the globe. Over half a million Ethiopian refugees fled their country during the time of ‘the Derg’ regime (1974 to 1987) – especially in the latter half of the 1970s during the Red Terror. Such migrants often spent years or decades displaced in surrounding countries (such as Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt) before they were resettled permanently in countries like Australia. Drought and famine also caused further displacement. Australia accepted a few hundred political and environmental Ethiopian refugees in the ’80s and ’90s. Such individuals often had less education and skills due to their experience of displacement.1


However, the vast majority of Ethiopians living in Australia today have arrived since 2000. This includes people of all education and skill levels, ages and genders. Approximately 3,000 arrived between 2000 and 2005.2 The majority of these individuals arrived on humanitarian visas (65%) or family visas (33%).3 Many were single or widowed mothers and their children. The Australian government granted a further 1,345 humanitarian visas to Ethiopia-born refugees between 2012 and 2017.4 Again, the majority of these refugees arrived from surrounding countries (such as Sudan and Kenya). 


Those who have arrived in the 2000’s include refugees that have fled political persecution by the post-Derg government, such as human rights activists or people suffering persecution on the basis of their ethnicity/region. Some individuals may have been displaced by the war with Eritrea and subsequent divide between the countries (see Political History in Core Concepts). For example, some people in mixed Ethiopian/Eritrean marriages could not return to either country without splitting up their families and had to move to a third country. More recently, many Ethiopians are arriving on family visas as those who migrated earlier in the '80s and '90s have gained residency and can now sponsor their relatives to migrate. 


It is essential to recognise that there is no uniform understanding of the typical Ethiopian migration experience. Prolonged experiences of displacement in surrounding countries (such as Sudan, Kenya, etc.) can affect the practice of culture and traditions, and formation of identity. Refugee individuals and families may have waited decades before being resettled. Some children of Ethiopian heritage were born in refugee camps, and have never visited Ethiopia. 


Community Diversity

Australia’s Ethiopian community is very diverse, including people from different ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural backgrounds. It is common for people of different backgrounds to unite for national celebrations. There are also quite healthy relationships between Ethiopians and Eritreans in Australia – especially among the youth – formed on the basis of their mutual ‘habesha’ identity (See Habesha Culture and Identity in Core Concepts). For example, it is common for Eritrean community representatives to be invited to Ethiopian events to symbolise good faith between the two communities. However, there is also a tendency to gravitate towards one’s own religious or ethnic community.



The largest Ethiopian ethnic groups in Australia are the Oromo, Tigray, Amhara and Harari. Others also include the Gaurage, Afar and Sidamo. Relations between ethnicities in Australia have been strained in the past as a result of political developments in Ethiopia. Generally, people who left Ethiopia for reasons of political/ethnic persecution are more likely to be sensitive to issues surrounding ethnicity. For example, some Oromos may prefer to identify as ‘Oromo Australians’ rather than ‘Ethiopian Australians’, feeling that the national identity does not represent them. However, Amharic-speakers and individuals that are ethnically mixed tend to prefer to use the label of ‘Ethiopian Australians’. One may find that some Ethiopians oppose the use of ethnic signifiers (seeing them as divisive), whilst others are deeply proud of their ethnic identity. Either way, it is reported that Ethiopians living in Australia are more nationally minded than ethnic minded. Some see the ethnic federation to be the main source of their country’s problems for the way it has fostered identity politics (see Ethnic Relations in Core Concepts).  



Ethiopian communities are primarily organised around their religions and places of worship. As of 2016, roughly 35.4% of Ethiopians in Australia identified as Orthodox Christians (including Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox), 24.4% identified as Muslim and a further remaining 32% identified with another religion or religious affiliation (including different denominations of Christianity).5 Muslim Ethiopians tend to worship at multicultural mosques with the broader Australian Muslim community. These include many people from the Oromos, Harari, Afar and Gurage ethnic groups. Meanwhile, Orthodox Ethiopians generally worship at churches devoted to their specific denomination, either Ethiopian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox. Pentecostal Ethiopians usually attend Protestant churches that have a dedicated day or night for their community’s form of worship.


As the Ethiopian ‘TewahedoOrthodox Church is closely correlated with the national identity, Orthodox celebrations also tend to act as cultural occasions that are attended by many diverse groups of people. Ethiopian Orthodox Churches have also been effective in promoting and continuing Amharic language ties in Australia, as congregations often require their members to speak the language during service. Most members of the Ethiopian Pentecostal church converted whilst living in refugee camps in Africa, or after their arrival in Australia.6 


Experience in Australia

Media reporting often does not differentiate between the different ethnicities and nationalities of the African people living in Australia. Some Ethiopians express disappointment about the lack of education and awareness within the Australian public about their country and the Horn of Africa. As with other African communities in Australia, Ethiopians are sometimes the target of intolerance and hostility from the Australian public. It is reported that they commonly encounter a stereotype of their people as ‘starving Africans’. According to the Scanlon Foundation’s 2015 survey, 60% of Ethiopians said they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months living in Australia.7 The 2016 census showed that the average weekly income for Ethiopians in Australia was roughly $200 less than the average for the total Australian population.8 Some Ethiopian migrants describe feeling a social gap between themselves and Anglo-Australians.


The majority of Ethiopians live in Victoria – namely Melbourne and surrounding areas. Churches and mosques have been instrumental in supporting immigrants though the challenges of language and social adjustment. Ethnic stores and shops have also provided a form of social support as dining at restaurants with Ethiopian cuisines can relieve people’s sense of loss of their homeland.


The Ethiopian diaspora in Australia and other countries has also been able to give a political voice to those remaining in Ethiopia that are censored by their government. However, people may feel distress that they are unable to help whilst in Australia. One may find the younger generation of Ethiopians in Australia tend to be less concerned with the politics of their homeland. Some individuals may also prefer not to involve themselves in such conversations, finding memories too painful or preferring to leave politics in the past.



1 Gow, 2001
2 Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2014
3 Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2014
4 Department of Home Affairs, 2017
5 Census of Population and Housing, 2016
6 Mergia, 2005
7 Markus, 2015
8 Census of Population and Housing, 2016

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