by George Vailakis

The history of the Greek Diaspora in Australia is long, multifaceted and fascinating. The first Greek to arrive in Australia, according to oral tradition, was a Damian Gikas who was transported to Sydney in 1802 as a convict. In fact, Gikas is said to have been a captain from Hydra island and was unjustly arrested as a pirate by an English warship and sentenced to exile in Australia.

But this story cannot be confirmed, as there is nothing relevant in the archives of Australia or Greece. It seems, however, that this version emerged from the true history of the first Greeks in Australia. They were seven young men from Hydra who arrived there in 1828, convicted of piracy by a British court. According to available historical sources, five of them were repatriated in 1836, indicating that they were probably not pirates.

The first free Greek immigrant to arrive in Australia was the sailor John Peters in Sydney, in 1838, while the first Greek woman was a Catherine Plessa in 1853. As for the main migratory flow from Greece to Australia, it began after 1880. The census of 1891 states 482 people, who were nevertheless born in Greece. These immigrants came mainly from Kythira, Ithaca and Kastelorizo ​​and were the ones who laid the foundations of the Greek-Australian community.

Greeks are the seventh largest ethnic group in Australia

The 2016 census recorded 397,431 people of Greek descent, making Australia home to one of the largest Greek communities in the world. Greeks are the seventh largest ethnic group in Australia. Greeks and Cypriots total 422,234 people – almost 1.8% of the population.

Greek immigration was one of the largest migratory flows in the history of Australia, especially after World War II and the Greek Civil War. In addition, since 2015, the flow of immigrants from Greece has increased due to the economic crisis, with Australia proving to be one of the main destinations, mainly Melbourne, where traditionally is the strongest Greek-Australian community.

However, the first great wave of free Greek immigrants began in the 1850s, it continued until the end of the 19th century and was partly triggered by the discovery of gold in the country at that time.

In 1901, the year in which the federation was established and the Commonwealth of Australia was established as an acquisition of the British Empire, the Australian census recorded 878 native Greeks born in Greece and immigrated to Australia. Many of these Greeks owned or worked in shops and restaurants. Some were cane cutters in Queensland.

From the last decade of the 19th century until World War I, the number of Greeks who immigrated to Australia grew steadily, and Greek communities were quite well established in Melbourne and Sydney since that time. It was during the interwar period that the number of Greek immigrants increased significantly. After the Asia Minor catastrophe, some Greeks settled in Australia, while others went there only after the United States introduced restrictive immigration quotas in the early 1920s.

In October 1964 the ship America was bought by the company Chandris brothers, and was rebuilt and renamed AUSTRALIS with a carrying apacity of 2,258 passengers

Strong relationship since World War II

When Greece entered World War II, many Australian and New Zealand soldiers went to Greece and enlisted to help, thus building a relationship between Australians and Greeks that remains strong to this day.

The Greek government, after the destruction of infrastructure and the mass looting of the banks by the Germans, encouraged postwar immigration: It was a way of solving the problems of poverty and unemployment.

After World War II, in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, thousands of Greeks immigrated to Australia for a better life and perspective for themselves and their families. Their main destinations were Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. During these decades, Greeks began to establish their own restaurants, Greek Community clubs and Greek-Australian football clubs.

The Greek-language press appeared in Australia in 1913 – when the first Greek weekly newspaper was published in Melbourne.

In South Australia, the local Greek community published a short-lived newspaper called “Oceanis” in 1914.

On November 16, 1926, George Marcellos and John Stilson published a pamphlet entitled “Panellinios Kyrix” which was to become the second national Greek newspaper in Australia. In 1935 and 1936 a third newspaper was published, “Faros”. In 1957, the Greek-language newspaper “Neos Kosmos” was founded by Dimitris Gogos, Bill Stefanou and Alekos Doukas, followed by a number of titles that did not last long, the most important of which was “Tahidromos”, founded in 1968.

Since 1994, the “Paroikiako vima” has been released, which is printed in Renmark and informs the Greek community in South Australia.

Today there are three newspapers (“Neos Kosmos”, “Kosmos” and “Ellinikos Kirikas”), while the presence of the Greek Radio Program of the multicultural State Station SBS is also remarkable.

Following changes in Greece since the mid-1970s, including the fall of the Colonels’ Dictatorship in 1974 and Greece’s formal accession to the European Union, Greek immigration to Australia slowed after the peak of 160,100 arrivals in 1971. Within Australia, Greek immigrants have always been “extremely well organized socially and politically”, with around 600 Greek organizations in the country until 1973, while managing to maintain their religious faith and cultural identity.

In 2010’s Greeks come again

Since 2000, Greek immigration to Australia has declined. Also, during the years 2000–2009, many Greek-Australians returned to Greece to discover their homeland and reconnect with their ancestral roots. But the Greek economic crisis was growing and the opportunities for Greek-Australians living temporarily were limited. Due to this, many Greek-Australians shortened their planned long stays in Greece and returned to Australia.

In the early 2010s, there was an increase in Greek migration flows to Australia due to unemployment and the economic crisis in Greece. This led to the return of many Greek-Australians who had gone to Greece before the crisis, who were accepted by the large Greek-Australian community mainly in Melbourne.

The largest concentration of Greeks in Australia is in the state of Victoria, which is often considered the heart of the Greek-Australian community. The last census of 2016 recorded 93,740 people of Greek descent born in Australia, a decrease of 6.2% from the 2011 census. The distribution of 2011 by state and territory showed that Victoria had the largest number of Greek descent with 110,707, followed by New South Wales (81,683), South Australia (22,993), Queensland (10,538) and Western Australia (4,790).

According to a census released by the Statistical Office of Australia in 2016, Australians of Greek descent are predominantly Christian Orthodox (91.4%). The Holy Archdiocese of Australia, based in Sydney, under the newly elected Archbishop Makarios in 2019, and with its extensive network of parishes and monasteries (123 churches and 8 monasteries), is a pan-Australian institution with Ecclesiastical, educational, social and charitable activity in the field of the Greek Diaspora.

In 2016 (again according to the Statistical Office of Australia) Greek was spoken at home by 237,588 Australians, a decrease of 5.8% from the 2011 census. Greek is the seventh most frequently spoken language in Australia after English, Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Italian.

The number of pupils and students who are taught the Greek language is estimated at over 30,000. Undoubtedly, the cultivation of the Greek language is a crucial issue for the preservation of the Greek identity and consciousness in the expatriate Hellenism. That is why the operation of 11 bilingual schools and 100 integrated Greek Language Departments in Australia is extremely important – a fact that is considered to be particularly encouraging for the similar continuity of the Greek community.

The Greeks of Melbourne

The President of the Hellenic Community of Melbourne, Bill Papastergiadis

Since 2010, the flow of migrants from Greece has increased due to the economic crisis, with Australia proving to be one of the main destinations, mainly Melbourne, where the most powerful Greek-Australian community is located. The president of the Greek Community of Melbourne (EKM) Vassilis Papastergiadis talks to Greek Business File about the third largest Greek-speaking city in the world, about the Greeks who live there, their daily life and their prospects.

There are about 700,000 Greeks in Australia – 300,000 in Melbourne alone. This is the reason why Melbourne is considered the third largest Greek-speaking city in the world after Athens and Thessaloniki. The first Greeks settled in Melbourne in the mid-18th century. A number of them founded the Hellenic Community of Melbourne (ECM) in 1897 and immediately afterwards the Community established the first Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne. EKM is a non-profit organization and is considered one of the leading Greek organizations in the world.

It is the oldest Greek organization in Australia and the second oldest in the Diaspora, after the Greek Community of Alexandria, in Egypt. It is active in the field of education and culture, operating more than 15 schools with thousands of students, while organizing some of the largest festivals in Australia and the Greek Diaspora, such as the Antipodes Festival, which attracts over 150,000 each year, the Greek Film Festival, the Writers’ Festival and the Greek Tastes Festival, as well as the successful series of Greek History and Culture Seminars with the participation of researchers and academics from all over the world.

Also, with its initiatives, it tries to promote our national issues and to contribute to the solution of problems concerning the Hellenism of Australia and the Greek community in general, with steps to the governments of Australia and Greece and other competent authorities.

The construction of the new 15-storey building of the Greek Community of Melbourne is located in the city center

At the same time, it promotes Greek tourism and investment in Greece through contacts with prime ministers and ministers and by participating in conferences and forums, while organizing special meetings with Australian investors, encouraging them to invest in Greece. EKM has proposed to GNTO (Greek National Tourism Organization) and Enterprise Greece to set up a free office in its building in Melbourne and is awaiting a response from the Greek government.

The construction of the new 15-storey Community building in central Melbourne, with the support of the Australian Government, is a seal of development and recognition by the Australian authorities. Today our Community is considered one of the largest educational institutions in Australia, as it operates the School of Language and Culture, which offers a Greek program.

The ECM also operates five churches in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Australia. Greeks have been integrated into Australian society, occupying large and key positions in various fields, such as judges, ministers, rectors at universities, presidents of major medical associations and companies.”

The immigrants of the 21st century

With the new flow of immigration in recent years, newcomers from Greece are facing problems of adaptation to the new society. We asked for support from state governments and the federal government on this issue and they responded positively.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, ministers and other politicians who visited the ECM’s 15-storey cultural center in the heart of Melbourne, said they were impressed by the Community’s activities and work, while emphasizing the positive contribution of Greeks to Australian society. They typically say that without the Greeks Australia would not be as it is today,” Papastergiadis says.

Prime Minister Morrison has announced a $5 million grant to the ECM, possibly the largest government grant to a community body in Australia.

This grant includes:

(a) the allocation of $2.5 million for the establishment of a new chair at the University of Melbourne related to the Greek Diaspora and

(b) the allocation of $2.5 million for the operation of a new Greek center for our youth, so that we can continue to promote our culture to future generations.

At the same time, the state government of Victoria offered a grant of 2.5 million dollars for the establishment of another club for the Greek elderly, while it grants with 300,000 dollars the installation of a copy of the Parthenon frieze on the facade of the 15-storey Greek Center of EKM. This project has been undertaken by experts from Greece and is made in Greece with marble from Parnitha.

Through our Community contacts with the Prime Ministers of the State Government and the Federal Government, we promote various issues related to the Greek Diaspora and the signing of transnational agreements, such as the signing of the agreement between Australia and Greece that allows young people from both countries to get special visa to go on holiday to each country respectively having the right to work. The visa agreement was signed with the initiative and efforts of our Community,” Papastergiadis notes. “We have also contributed to the start of negotiations between the two countries for the conclusion of transnational agreements on double taxation and health care. The competent ministers said they were positive about the conclusion of the agreements and were ready to cooperate with us on these agreements.”

Chairs and programs of Greek studies

According to information provided to GBF by the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, there are Chairs and Programs of Greek Studies in various universities in Australia. In New South Wales, at the University of Sydney, there has been a Chair of Greek Studies since 1983 and Greek Studies Programs at Macquarie University and UNSW. In Western Australia at the University of Notre Dame there is a Greek Studies Program since 1999; in Victoria there is a Department of Greek Studies at La Trobe University; while in South Australia (at Flinders University) there is the LOGOS Chair for the teaching of the Greek language. The University of Queensland, with a $1 million donation from expatriate oncologist Paul Eliadis, has the Chair of Classics and Ancient History since 2014. The Universities of Australia, with Chairs and Programs of Greek Studies, are pioneers in the organization of annual conferences on Greek arts and Greek letters. The eight Greek-language Colleges operating in Australia (one in Perth, one in Adelaide, three in Melbourne and three in Sydney), with a total of 4,592 students are remarkable.

Greek Business File continues the tribute to the Greek Diaspora all over the world. This article was published in the January / February issue of Greek Business File is available here. 

The new March/ April issue of Greek Business File is available here.