Many people here in Australia are using this time to learn about the current situation of those living in Afghanistan or seeking to flee that country. Some are also seeking to understand the history of Australia’s relationship with Afghan people. In the process, we are being surprised at what we learn, especially in relation to the unsung contributions which Afghan people have made throughout Australian history.In the mid-nineteenth century, Afghan camelmen played a critical role in opening up the vast Australian outback to Europeans.
In these times, camel trains were a crucial life support system to outback communities. The cameleers came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Turkish empire and their labour and skills in hot, dry arid conditions made possible a number of key projects including the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin, the Queensland Border Fence, the Transcontinental railway Line between Port Augusta, South Australia and Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and the Rabbit-proof Fence and Canning Stock Route in Western Australia. Cameleers were also vital to the early wool and mining industries. What’s more, some of the exploratory expeditions which traversed the most inhospitable parts of Australia only survived due to the expertise and endurance of the cameleers in the hot and waterless land (they were also dependent upon Indigenous Australian skill and knowledge of country).
There are still remnants of these Afghan histories in many Australian cities – the date palms in Alice Springs, cemeteries in Broken Hill, Marree, Coolgardie, and elsewhere, and mosques in Adelaide and Perth. Camel races continue in various parts of the country, while the train line that connects southern Australia to Alice Springs is still referred to as the ‘Ghan’ in honour of the early contributions to this country of Afghan people. And, of course, camels themselves remain an enduring part of life in northern Australia.
In every book which focuses on the Afghans in this country, after tracing the histories of Afghan contribution, there are further chapters entitled ‘No alien hawkers, please’ or ‘The period of usefulness has passed’ or simply ‘Afghans not wanted’. By the end of the nineteenth century, racial intolerance swept across Australia directed primarily at the Chinese, the Pacific Islanders in Queensland, and the Afghans. Acts of violence and harassment at the local level, linked with the national policies of The Immigration Restriction Act, later to be known as the White Australia policy, and refusals to grant Afghan people naturalisation (even those who had been living in Australia for up to thirty years) gradually debilitated the Afghan community in Australia. Many Afghans were forced to leave the country and gradually the role of the camel trains was replaced by trains and trucks. The Afghan people who had contributed so much to life in opening up the outback to Euro-Australians were rewarded for their work with harassment and exclusion.
Over the last few years, boat people fleeing from Afghanistan have been arriving on Australia’s shores. They have been met with hostility and mandatory detention. Recently, they have been expelled from Australian waters by the use of military vessels. Many people have been shocked at the attitudes shown towards these Afghani people who are seeking refuge.
As we try to establish what part Australia should play in relation to the humanitarian and refugee crisis looming in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what would it mean if we considered the histories of Afghan contributions to Australia? What would it mean if we also kept in mind the histories of racist exclusion that led to the destruction of the early Australian Afghan communities? What’s more, how could these histories inform our response to the current crisis and how we act towards the people of Afghanistan?
For more information about these histories see:
The Afghans in Australia, by Michael Cigler (Blackburn, Victoria: Australian Ethnic Heritage Series. Australasian Educa Press, 1986)
In the tracks of the camelmen, by Pamela Rajkowski (North Ryde, NSW: Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1987)