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‘Where the hell we are?’ The unlikely spot that up to one-in-20 Australians may be connected to

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When Ivo Srsen left Europe in 1968 on a plane headed to Australia he was searching for adventure and to see the world.
The Croatian-born university student was just 24 years old at the time and had signed up to work in Australia for two years after seeing a sign outside Australia’s consul-general in Austria.
But the world Mr Srsen was expecting to see was very different to where he found himself months later, in a migrant camp located near the regional Victorian town of Wodonga.

“We came in the night, I think it was about 2.30, 3 o’clock in Bonegilla,” Mr Srsen told SBS News.

The mess hall at Bonegilla migrant camp. Source: Supplied / Albury Library Museum

“In the morning … when I walk out, I saw nothing but a barracks … there was a wooden building [a kitchen] and all bush around – shocking.

“I think we saw one or two or three kangaroos around on the edges of the fence … [I thought] is this what Australia look like? Is this where they brought us? Where the hell we are?”

A black and white photo of two women sitting in chairs outside a building, with two children sitting on steps

Residents of Bonegilla migrant centre. Source: Supplied / Albury Library Museum


Mr Srsen was one of more than 300,000 people processed through the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre between 1947 and 1971, with some estimates suggesting that up to one-in-20 Australians may have a connection to the site.

Historian Bruce Pennay of Charles Stuart University suspects the one-in-20 figure may now be out-of-date given the large number of migrants that have since arrived in Australia from Asian countries, but says the site is still of national significance.

Why did migrants have to go through Bonegilla?

Associate Professor Pennay said Bonegilla was a repurposed army barracks that functioned as a reception centre for “assisted migrants” – those who had got a paid ticket to Australia in exchange for working in the country for two years.

Many post-World War Two refugees and other displaced persons also went through the centre, where they underwent health and customs checks and were assigned jobs around Australia.

At the time there was high demand for labourers and domestic workers in Australia, and many migrants were sent to hotels, boarding schools and private homes.

“They took the jobs that Australians didn’t particularly want,” Associate Professor Pennay said. “And I don’t know that that’s changed much today.”
Associate Professor Pennay said the displaced persons and the assisted migrants all had to agree that they would go where they were directed to work, and work there for two years.

“They didn’t have much say in where they were going and didn’t have much say at all on what jobs they were to do.”

A black and white photo of two men in chef's hats cooking in an old-fashioned kitchen

The kitchen at Bonegilla had to cater to thousands of migrants. Source: Supplied

Bonegilla was not the only migrant centre set up in Australia – there were others in Western Australia and Bathurst, NSW – but it was the biggest and longest-running centre in the post-war era.

At the height of its operations, Associate Professor Pennay said it housed more than 7,000 people in 24 blocks, with thousands arriving and leaving every day. The centre had its own church, bank, sporting field, cinema, hospital, police station and railway platform.

Most migrants stayed around three weeks, although some got jobs at the centre and even went on to live there with their families for many years afterwards.

Where did Bonegilla’s residents come from and how did they get there?

Associate Professor Pennay said the migrants came from a huge number of countries but those from Italy, Greece and the Netherlands dominated the assisted migrant program.
Displaced persons mainly came from the northern European countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

Many arrived on ships and were taken to the centre by train.

But Mr Srsen said he flew to Australia on a plane from Austria and was taken by bus to Bonegilla, travelling along the Hume Highway at night.

He said the first shock he got in Australia was seeing “huge cars” travelling on the highway.
“I never saw in my life something like that – enormous cars full of lights, like a moon,” he said.

“I said, ‘what the hell is this?’. They were big semi-trailers and they installed all the lights around the truck so it looks enormous, and I never saw in Europe these kinds of things in the night.”

Why preserving Bonegilla’s history matters

Bonegilla is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and Associate Professor Pennay said it marked the last big milestone that would likely be celebrated while those who remembered what it was like to be processed there were still alive.
“From now on, we won’t be able to readily tap living people’s memory of what the camp was like,” Associate Professor Pennay said.
As part of anniversary celebrations, a new permanent exhibition has been launched at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience centre, where people can see ID cards from many of those who passed through the centre. Visitors will also be able to search for details of family members and friends.

Today all that remains of the centre is Block 19.

Associate Professor Pennay said the Bonegilla Migrant Experiences centre attempted to tell the stories of the migrant experience.

“We’ve got so many people who are migrants in Australia,” he said. “We think it’s important for Australia to reflect on how Australia went about taking people in, in the post-war years, and how it goes about taking them in now.”

An end to the White Australia policy

Associate Professor Pennay said the assisted migrants program was introduced after World War Two amid a housing and building materials shortage in Australia.
Before this, the White Australia Policy mostly restricted migrants to British people, with the Ten Pound Pom program bringing in large numbers of migrants between the 1940s and 1960s.

After the war, Associate Professor Pennay said Australia’s immigration minister Arthur Calwell wanted to bring people in from Europe to increase the workforce in Australia and grow its population so it could defend itself.

Butchers hold knives surrounded by meat

The Bonegilla migrant centre processed thousands of migrants after World War Two. Source: Supplied / City of Wodonga

He said the centre now sat alongside places like the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House as places of significance on Australia’s National Heritage List.

“There’s this former army camp tucked away on the banks of the Murray River, 12 kilometres from Wodonga, and it’s a rough and ready army camp, and we used it to house thousands and thousands of migrants,” Associate Professor Pennay said.

“That’s telling us something about Australia isn’t it? That’s telling us about being a migrant country, as well as a country that’s got a Great Barrier Reef and an Opera House.”

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