Australian Communities: Syrian Australians

In the 2011 Census 13,517 Australians reported Syrian ancestry, 8392 of whom were born in Syria.


Syria is a middle eastern country bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey. It shares borders with Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Damascus, its capital, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, was first settled in the second millennium BCE. Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks. The country has a wealth of significant archaeological and historical sites all under threat from the current Syrian conflict.

Syria is a culturally diverse country. Its pre-conflict population was estimated to be 22 million, 87% of whom were Arab Muslims including Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia. The remainder were ethno-religious minorities including Armenians, Assyrians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds, Yazidi, Mhallami, Arab Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmens and Greeks. Its current population may be under 18 million and reducing daily as people flee the conflict. About 250,000 people have been killed and halfof the country’s population has been displaced, with 4 million fleeing as refugees.

Invaded by the Turks in the sixteenth century, Syria became a province of the Ottoman Empire. At the end of World War I it came under French colonial rule until its independence in 1946. During the next 20 years there were numerous coups and a brief unity with Egypt. The socialist Ba’ath party took over the government in 1963. In 1970 Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, seized power and brought political stability to the country although dissent was harshly suppressed, elections were rigged and policies favoured the Alawite sect of Islam to which Assad belonged. After his death in 2000 Bashar al-Assad assumed power and with few concessions continued the one party authoritarian rule of his father.

The catalyst for the current civil conflict is considered to be the jailing and torture on March 6, 2011, of 15 young students who painted anti-government graffiti on their school walls. Some were killed in detention, and in the climate of the ‘Arab Spring’, led to public protests. Fueled by the failure of the government to punish the perpetrators the protests spread around the country demanding President Assad’s resignation, the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms including press, and an end to pervasive government corruption.

The government forces countered with increasing violence and opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas. The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against President Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in neighbouring countries and world powers. The rise of the jihadist groups, including Islamic State whose brutal tactics have caused widespread concern and triggered rebel infighting, has added a further dimension.

Four million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees who is leading the regional emergency response. Women and children make up 75 percent of these refugees. Most Syrian refugees end up in overcrowded and underfunded camps in neighboring countries. With little hope of returning home, many of these families are seeking new lives in Europe. The journey is expensive, uncertain and often fatal.

Migration to Australia(1)

Under Ottoman rule, all Syrian emigrants were issued with Turkish documents, regardless of their regional, linguistic or religious origins. This meant that early Syrian immigrants to Australia were classified as ‘Turks’ even when many of them were not of Turkish origin.

Syrian immigration to Australia began over a century ago and a few individuals and small groups arrived in Australia in the 1870s. At that time, Syrians migrating to Australia may have included Syrian Christians persecuted by the Ottomans, people escaping economic hardship caused by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It was not until the late 1880s and early 1890s that Syrians began arriving in sufficient numbers for attention in the colonial census. As officials becam e aware of internal differences among ‘Turks’ they began categorising immigrants on the basis of region of origin. This made it possible to distinguish Syrians from other ‘Turkish’ immigrants.

Among the early migrants from Syria were Jews, Copts, Greeks, Armenians, and Lebanese from the province of Greater Syria. At the time, all those coming from Syria were called Syrians even though the majority may have been Lebanese.

Since the 1960s, following the easing of immigration restrictions, there has been steady migration from Syria, though small in numbers, mainly under the Family component of the Migration Program.



Additional Resources:

Theme: Cultural diversity and multiculturalism – Culture, language and identity – Migration and refugees