Geographic Origins 

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is in southern Asia. It is bordered by Iran to the west, Afghanistan and China to the north, India to the east and the Arabian Sea to the south.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Many of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who came to South Australia during the nineteenth century were actually from the regions of Sind, Peshawar, Baluchistan and the Punjab in present-day Pakistan. All Muslim camelmen were termed ‘Afghan’ by colonial authorities because of their similar non-Anglo-Saxon appearance, their turbans and loose flowing garments, and their common adherence to Islam.

Baloch from Baluchistan is the first cameleer known to have come to Australia from the region of present-day Pakistan. He was one of three camelmen brought to Australia by George James Landells in 1859 to handle camels on the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to cross the Australian continent in 1860.

In 1866 Sir Thomas Elder brought 31 cameleers and 120 camels to South Australia to work at Beltana, his pastoral property near Leigh Creek. Among the camelmen were the brothers Faiz and Tagh Mohomet, recruited from Karachi, which is now in Pakistan. In 1888 Elder released the brothers from their employment contracts so that they could establish their own camel-carrying business in Marree. This was a successful venture as the business expanded into Coolgardie and Port Hedland, two goldfield regions of Western Australia in 1892. By the 1890s this business had become so successful that the Mohomet brothers employed over 100 camelmen to handle more than 1,000 camels.

These two men made a major contribution to the development of the Australian outback. Although Faiz Mohomet had lived in Australia for over 30 years in 1896, his application for naturalisation was refused.

A feature of Western Australia’s geography is named after one of Marree’s camelmen. Bejah Hill in the Gibson Desert was named after Bejah Dervish, a Baluchi camelman who is believed to have arrived in South Australia in the 1880s. He accompanied L.A. Wells on the 1896–97 Calvert expedition, which explored the harsh country between Lake Way and the Fitzroy River. Two men died of thirst in the course of the trek. The ‘faithful and highly respected’ Bejah died in 1958.

It is not known why the word ‘Afghan’ stuck to these early migrants and cameleers who initially came from provinces such as Sind, Baluchistan, the Punjab and North West Frontier. Later these people were joined by cameleers from Egypt, Persia, Turkey and other countries. The 1901 census recorded that there were 600 cameleers in Australia. These were predominantly single men who led difficult lives. Their settlements became known as Ghan towns and were usually situated on the outskirts of towns such as Port Augusta, Lyndhurst, Farind, Marree, Oodnadatta and Tarcoola in South Australia. Marree became the oldest and most famous Ghan town. Called ‘the little Asia’ there were times when thousands of camels stopped here and the mosque at Marree was always busy.

The cameleers were pioneers in many things and it is generally accepted that they laid the foundation of a Muslim community in Australia. They discovered new routes that assisted in the exploration of central Australia and elsewhere; they were instrumental in the laying down of the Overland Telegraph Line that linked Australia to the outside world. They assisted in the erection of dingo and rabbit-proof fences and their camels carried merchandise of all kinds.  Importantly, they bought Islam to this country which resulted in the building of the first mosque in Australia situated in Little Gilbert Street, Adelaide.

The camel trains of Central Australia began to decline in the 1920s and 30s. In 1929 South Australian rail tracks were extended north from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. The train on this line was called The Ghan. Aeroplanes and cars began to take over much of the work that had previously been done by the hardy cameleers and their camels. As a result a large number of Muslim South Australians returned to their countries of origin. Some remained in South Australia and sought work as hawkers, labourers and small property owners. Some single men intermarried and settled in the state. Quite a number of camelmen married Aboriginal women.

A lone camelman lived in the Marree area in the 1960s. Syed Goolamdeen was born in Baluchistan, which is now in Pakistan, in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Syed is an hereditary Islamic title which means that a person is descended from the Prophet Mohammed.

Although he married and had two children in Baluchistan, Syed was soon a childless widower. He arrived in Melbourne in 1901. After making his way to Adelaide by train Syed met Gunney Khan, the head of the Islamic community, who employed him on his camel train. For many years Syed worked on camel trains around Broken Hill. He bought some camels of his own and began working for himself. He eventually owned a herd of approximately 90 camels.

In 1962 Syed recalled the era of the camelmen prior to the Second World War when there were 50 to 60 inhabitants of Marree’s Ghan Town. He explained that he had demolished the town’s mosque in 1956 because he was too crippled to care for it and the descendants of the camelmen tended to abandon the faith after their fathers’ deaths.

Today many descendants of camelmen in the states far north are discovering their heritage.

In the twentieth century, Pakistanis were prevented from settling permanently in Australia by the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia Policy. However, after the Second World War Pakistani post- graduate students began coming to South Australia under the Colombo Plan. Most of them were enrolled at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Flinders or Adelaide Universities. Deputations of technical experts were also exchanged between Pakistan and Australia under government and private training programs.

The Immigration Restriction Act was relaxed after 1967 and abolished in 1973.

Pakistani South Australians immigrated to Australia to improve employment opportunities and their children’s prospects.

One of the earliest Pakistanis to settle in South Australia first visited Australia in 1956. Ashraf Choudhry was a wrestling competitor at the Melbourne Olympic Games. He was Pakistan’s wrestling champion for 11 years from 1950. Ashraf won a bronze medal at the 1954 Asian Games in Manilla and a gold medal at the 1958 Commonwealth and Empire Games in Cardiff. In 1960 he became Pakistan’s national wrestling coach. Pakistani wrestlers won a record seven gold medals and a silver medal in eight events at the 1962 Commonwealth and Empire Games in Perth.

From 1964 Australian wrestling authorities tried to secure Ashraf Choudhry’s services to coach Australian wrestlers. As a result of the 1971 civil war between West and East Pakistan, the government of Pakistan agreed to spare Ashraf for 24 weeks in 1972. He toured state capitals and regional centres, lending his expertise to Australian athletes. Australian wrestlers competed under his direction at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. Wally Kroenig, a 14-year-old member of the 1974 Australian team, won a silver medal. Other members won three bronze medals. This was the best performance by an Australian wrestling team in 36 years.

In 1974 Ashraf Choudhry settled in Adelaide. He continued to promote the sport and encourage local wrestlers. With the help of Rolf Jacobi, Member for Hawker in the Australian House of Representatives, Ashraf Choudhry was joined by his family in 1975. The Choudhry family was naturalised in the same year. Ashraf Choudhry retired from coaching in 1979. He and his family have a place of honour in the Pakistani community.

Among the notable early professionals are: Ashfaque Ahmad who served at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1967-1998, retiring as senior staff specialist in Radiation-Oncology; Munir Ahmad Abid who retired in 2001 after 25 years as senior Botanist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Sirajul Haq was the first Pakistani doctor to practise as a country GP in Port Lincoln from 1972-1986, later moving to Adelaide. He was elected President of the Pakistani-Australian Association in 2001; Riaz Hassan joined the academic staff of Flinders University in 1977 and has held the position of Professor of Sociology since 1988; Abul Khair Mohd Farooque joined the staff of Flinders University in 1971 and retired from the position of Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies in 1998; Eugene Nathanial started as a medical practitioner in the early 1970s, joined later by his wife Hazel who is also a doctor; Asif Mirza came to South Australia in 1976 and practiced as a solicitor for many years in Adelaide; and Shamim Noori who was a teacher in chemistry at various metropolitan high schools from 1972-1982.

Pakistani South Australians are engaged in business or the professions. They are scattered throughout the metropolitan area.

Community Activities

The Australia Pakistan Association of South Australia was established by Dr Ashfaque Amad in 1969. Its members came from both West and East Pakistan. The association aimed to promote understanding between Australia and Pakistan and to maintain Pakistani cultural traditions. It organised the celebration of national holidays and arranged lectures, film evenings, picnics and barbecues. In 1970 it had approximately 50 members, including non-Pakistani South Australians. The association disbanded following the 1971 civil war and independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh.

The Pakistani Association of South Australia was founded by Ms Roshan Farooque and Mr Khalid Farooqui in August 1985. The late Mr Shamim Noori was the first president. The association’s membership included East Pakistani South Australians who immigrated to Australia before the 1971 creation of Bangladesh. Dr Abul K.M. Farooque became president of the association in 1987. In that year he was instrumental in founding an Urdu school. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan. In 1993 approximately 30 students attended Sunday Urdu classes at Ascot Park Primary School. At present there is no Urdu school in South Australia. 

In 1992 the Pakistani Association of South Australia changed its name to the Pakistani-Australian Association of South Australia. This was to clarify the association’s role as both a cultural and friendship society, open to people of Pakistani descent and to those with an interest in Pakistani culture. Its members include Pakistani South Australians, people of non-Pakistani descent who have either lived in or visited Pakistan, and Pakistani students who are living temporarily in South Australia while studying at Adelaide’s tertiary institutions. 

The association meets regularly to plan its affairs and hold Mehfil-e Mushairas, Urdu poetry readings. The association often entertains visiting Pakistani sportspeople, musicians and academics. Pakistan Day, Independence Day, Eid Milan, Re-Union, and Eidul Adha are also celebrated.

The Islamic Information Centre of South Australia (IICSA) at Mile End is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a range of services to the community of South Australia. These include public lectures, seminars, general public and government sponsored events such as festivals, Arabic language and Islamic school services. The aim of the organisation is to educate people to Islam in a peaceful and non-threatening way. IICSA also provides settlement services for recently arrived migrants and international students to South Australia.

Pakistan Day is on 23 March. It commemorates the 1940 Lahore Resolution, which led to the creation of an Indian Muslim country. A barbecue or picnic is held. 

Independence Day is on 14 August. It celebrates the 1947 creation of Pakistan. Festivities include a community meal and cultural performances. Occasionally a Pakistani film or video is shown.

While Islam is the official religion of Pakistan, the Pakistani-Australian Association of South Australia ensures that it remains a non-religious, non-political organisation serving the cultural and social needs of all its members. Membership is open to Pakistanis of all faiths.  Eid Milan and Eidul Adha are both religious and cultural celebrations. For further information see Appendix 1.

Organisations and Media

  • Pakistani-Australian Association of South Australia
  • Adelaide Mosque Islamic Society of South Australia Inc.
  • Islamic League of Australia
  • Renmark Islamic Society
  • Islamic Society of South Australia Inc.
  • Islamic Information Centre of South Australia
  • Muslim Women’s Association of South Australia


The 1981 census recorded 116 Pakistani-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 110, and 67 people said that they were of Pakistani descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 136 Pakistani-born South Australians. 188 people said that their mothers were born in Pakistan, and 224 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census Pakistani-born South Australians numbered 175 or 2.1 per cent of the national distribution of 8,354 persons, with the second generation nationally numbering 3,857 persons.

The 2001 census recorded 343 Pakistani-born South Australians, while 340 people said that they were of Pakistani descent.

The 2006 census recorded 643 Pakistani-born South Australians, while 636 people said that they were of Pakistani descent.

The 2011 census recorded 1,360 Pakistani-born South Australians, while 1,207 people said that they were of Pakistani descent.

The 2016 census recorded 3,442 Pakistani-born South Australians, while 3,069 people said that they were of Pakistani descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

Migration Museum

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