Fact sheets

Australian Communities: Lebanese Australians

Lebanese immigration to Australia began in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the community which now numbers more than 300,000 people (1) has made a profound contribution to the development of Australia as a nation. Australians of Lebanese ancestry live all over Australia with concentrations of more recently arrived settlers in Sydney and Melbourne.

Brief History

The area we now call Lebanon, with its capital Beirut, is a narrow coastal country bordered by Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. It is the historical home of the Phoenicians, Semitic traders who settled the coast and established independent trading cities. Being at the intersection of land and sea routes linking the ancient world, the area has had many invaders including the Hykos, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Islamic forces, Christian Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans.

Christianity arrived in the 4th century. Most Christians were Maronites, followers of St. Maro of Syria, others were Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. In 636 the area was conquered by Islamic forces. Two branches of Islam emerged, the Shi'ite and the Sunni. Lebanon's mountains became a refuge for Christians and Druze, another significant religious group.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the five provinces that comprise present-day Lebanon were mandated to France by the League of Nations. Lebanon was proclaimed a nation in 1926 with a new constitution which provided for a president, prime minister, and speaker of the chamber to be appointed according to religion. The population included approximately equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and a significant Druze minority. A greater level of cooperation between the religious groups and a sense of national identity began to replace the old family and religious allegiances. French became the second language. Beirut became the regional centre for finance, trade, tourism, and academic institutions.

During World War II Lebanon was occupied by British and Free French troops. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops were finally withdrawn in 1946.

For the next thirty years Lebanon experienced periods of peace with relative prosperity, and disruptive political turmoil. Much of the rural population continued to be desperately poor and left their villages to seek work in the towns. Many Lebanese migrated to other countries. The resources of Lebanon were further strained with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1946 when thousands of Palestinians sought refuge. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war another 700 000 Palestinian refugees arrived. Half of these people remain in Lebanon today.

Civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, largely the result of tensions between religious groups and the arrival of the Palestinian refugees. Three armies, 22 militias and 42 political parties took part in the tragedy of the next 15 years. The commercial heart of Beirut was destroyed, as many as 100 000 people were killed and 750 000 fled Lebanon as refugees to Europe, the USA or Australia, many never to return. As many as 20 000 people are still unaccounted for from the civil war period.

A peace was finally struck and changes made to government practices to promote equality amongst the religious groups. Despite its geographical position in the Middle East, and the continued presence of large numbers of Syrian troops and Palestinian refugees, Lebanon is regaining its stability. Beirut is being rebuilt and tourism is returning to the area.

The Republic of Lebanon is now a parliamentary democracy, modified to ensure representation of its various religious sects. There is equal representation by Muslims and Christians in the National Assembly. By custom, the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Legislature a Shi'a Muslim and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces a Druze. The composition of the cabinet, judiciary and military also reflects Lebanon's religious make-up.

Migration to Australia

Lebanese migration and settlement in Australia has been in three main waves reflecting the history of the area. The first two were mainly Christian and the third, mainly Muslim. The immigration and settlement experience for each group has been quite different.

The first wave commenced around 1880, although there were some earlier arrivals. These early immigrants were known as Syrians but they were classified as Turks by the colonial governments of the day. The area now known as Lebanon was still under Ottoman control. Many of these people intended to join relatives in New York but, exploited by unscrupulous shipping agents, found themselves in Australia instead. Life was not easy without English or contacts. Undaunted, immigrants with capital became small businessmen opening warehouses and drapery, hairdressing and grocery shops. Others quickly helped fill a need for itinerant hawkers selling their wares all over the country, often supplied by the newly established shopkeepers and warehousemen. When the hawkers amassed enough money they opened their own stores, often in country towns. Once the decision to stay in Australia was made they sent for the rest of their extended families. The second generation spoke English, were well educated and entered most professions.

The great majority of these first migrants were Christians including Maronites, Orthodox and Melkites. A small number of Druze settled in South Australia. In Australia many Lebanese Christians supported the existing Orthodox and Catholic communities. The first Melkite church was established in 1895, the first Maronite in 1897 and the first Orthodox in 1901.

Significant numbers of these migrants or their Australian born children served in Australia's forces during both world wars. During WWI when some young men or their parents were still classed as Turks many enlisted and fought on all fronts. Many became military interpreters in the Middle East. Many lost their lives. In WWII young men and women from most families enlisted. They served with distinction in all three armed forces in overseas conflicts and in Australia. Many were imprisoned and many were killed in the service of their country.

The second wave came between 1947 and 1976 when about 43,000 Lebanese settlers, very few of whom were assisted immigrants, arrived in Australia. Nearly all were educated to at least primary level and many already spoke two languages, Arabic and French, and quickly learned English. Like the first wave the decision to migrate had usually been made for economic reasons. Many of these migrants were "chain migrants" who had come to join other family members or acquaintances, already settled in Australia, who could offer support. There were also church and community organisations established by the first wave ready to help them. In the prevailing climate of high employment jobs were soon found in factories or businesses owned by community members. Other newcomers started small businesses of their own, manufacturing clothing or furniture, opening milk bars and garages or driving taxis. They worked hard and, in the main, quickly improved their situations.

The outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1976 brought about the third wave of Lebanese settlers. More than 16,000 Lebanese moved to Australia between 1976 and1981. Many came under the Australian Government's Special Humanitarian Program. This allowed people who had close Australian connections and whose lives and safety were threatened by the war, entry to Australia. They were not classed as refugees and had to rely on their own, often very limited, resources and those of their Australian "connection." They then became part of a chain sponsoring further immigrants putting an even greater strain on their resources. Many of these migrants, having experienced war and loss, had few possessions. Most spoke only Arabic and many had limited or disrupted education. Many were from rural areas with few skills which could be adapted easily to work in an Australia where there was no longer full employment. As most of these new arrivals were Muslims, Islamic societies became their focal points. Sunni mosques were established in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Lebanese community groups in Australia are usually based on religious affiliations or village associations rather than national identity. These groups help to meet the differing cultural, settlement and welfare needs of the people from particular faiths or villages and towns. There are also Lebanese associations which help bring the different groups together. Lebanese settlers and their descendents have made a valuable contribution to the development of the professional, business, political and cultural life of Australia.

Prominent Australians of Lebanese ancestry include:

(1) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Archives in Brief No. 62 September 2001, State Records, New South Wales

Grassby A J & Hill Marji Australians All [series] Lebanese Australians, Macmillan Education Australia 200

Additional information: Consulate General of Lebanon

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