Monday, 25 February 2013

Travelling in Australia, part 5

Where did all  the Aussies come from?

When you travel in Australia, you are bound to meet people who will tell you about their European roots. I knew that too, but it was not till I actually looked into the matter more closely that it dawned on me that the number of people of European origin in Australia is enormous and that their arrival to Australia is quite recent. So we are not talking about the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney in 1788 here.

Australian Government poster issued by the Overseas Settlement Office to attract immigrants

Since early 1945, more than 7 million people have come to Australia as new settlers. The trigger for a large-scale migration program was the end of World War II. Agreements were reached with Britain, some European countries and with the International Refugee Organization to encourage migration, including displaced people from war-torn Europe. Approximately 1.6 million migrants arrived between October 1945 and 30 June 1960, compared to about 1.3 million in the 1960s, about 960,000 in the 1970s, about 1.1 million in the 1980s, over 900,000 in the 1990s and over 900,000 since the year 2000.

After World War II, Australia launched a massive immigration program, believing that having narrowly avoided a Japanese invasion - a national experience which reaffirmed the racist xenophobia which gave birth to the White Australia Policy - Australia must "populate or perish”. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans migrated to Australia and over 1,000,000 British Subjects immigrated under the Assisted Migration Scheme, colloquially becoming known as Ten Pound Poms.  The scheme was initially open to citizens of all Commonwealth countries and, after the war, was gradually extended to other countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Turkey, West Germany, and the Baltic countries. The qualifications were straightforward: migrants needed to be in sound health and under the age of 45 years. There were initially no skill restrictions, although under the White Australia Policy, people from mixed race backgrounds found it very difficult to take advantage of the scheme.

Assisted migrants were generally obliged to remain in Australia for two years after arrival, or alternatively refund the cost of their assisted passage, 10 pounds. If they chose to travel back, the cost of the journey was at least £120, a large sum in those days and one that most could not afford.

Migrants from western and southern Europe who were selected because of their trade qualifications helped develop Western Australia's heavy industry projects such as Chamberlain tractors, the Wondowie charcoal, iron and steel industry, the Kwinana oil refinery, steel rolling and cement manufacturing projects, and the alumina industry at Pinjarra.  Immigrants also worked in the asbestos mines at Wittenoom.

Newly arrived non-English speaking migrants were placed into camps like the Holden Camp at Northam and the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre among others where they received food, shelter, and assistance from the Commonwealth Government. This came in the form of English language classes and vocational training to help "New Australians" (as they were called) adapt to life in their adopted homeland.

This was the sight that the New Australians faced when they were brought to Bonegilla after their long voyage from Europe. The first migrants arrived at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in December 1947. They were Displaced Persons or DP's whose lives had been disrupted by the horrors of World War II and they must have considered Australia a Godsend and a chance to grow new roots. Given that their circumstances had been bad in their homeland, the Centre did not exactly provide them with luxury either but at least they were safe. Also many of the newcomers did maybe not think they would have spent a lot of time in the centre before being shown their new homes and the much longed-for jobs.

When I saw the facilities where the migrants lived, it was not easy for me to imagine how they must have felt when they noticed what their new “home” looked like. The site was a former World War II Australian Army base. The camp operated until 1971 and it received over 300,000 migrants.

Many families in Australia have members who have passed through this centre. It was made even more concrete when Steve, our host, told us about his parents who had also lived in the centre. It is estimated that over 1.5 million Australians are descended from migrants who spent time at Bonegilla. Migrants at Bonegilla Centre came from 41 ethnic groups.

The experiences of Bonegilla migrants span the range of human emotions: isolation, fear, discomfort, and broken promises but also the warmth of the people, the friendships and the opportunities that became theirs.

The accommodation itself was in ex-Army unlined timber-framed buildings with corrugated iron walls.  The camp was broken up into 24 blocks each with a kitchen, mess hut and bath and toilet blocks. The rooms were designed to accommodate 20 people and contained no internal partitions. From 1951 onwards the internal walls were slowly lined and painted and cubicles installed, allowing some privacy and some chance for families to live together.

A bit more privacy would have been nice.

This was probably all the entertainment the centre could provide.

Not a very luxurious bathroom

Not very comfy but a bed nevertheless.

The centre was remote from the larger cities and it generally attracted little attention from the Australian press. An exception from this general rule was in 1949 when 13 newly arrived children died from malnutrition. An official inquiry was critical of the inadequately staffed and equipped hospital.

The food was also basic and, while unfamiliar to many migrants, was typical Australian food at the time.
That, as well as the general conditions, caused a lot of protests in 1952. Maybe these were the reason why the Italians took over the cooking and kitchen duties. No doubt adding to the taste and variety of the food served hugely. Also vegetable and herb plots were started in the Bonegilla Centre.

In 1961 Italian and German migrants staged a riot smashing the employment office and clashing with police. The protesters posted signs reading "We want work or back to Europe" and "Bonegilla camp without hope". Both expressions of the migrants' discontent received national – and even international – attention.

I never quite understood why it took so long to give these people the work they had originally been promised and which, I understand, was the purpose of the whole Scheme. Anyway, I can imagine the frustration of the people living in close quarters away from their familiar surroundings and language and very little to distract them from the monotonous daily routine of the centre. They came with great hopes and they ended up having to pass time how they best could with no knowledge how long it was going to take before they got work and could start putting together a real home for their families. That gave them plenty to think about and caused a lot of tears, I am sure.