Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre, Bonegilla

Rejuvenation

The post-war immigration boom radically transformed Australia, fostering a more multicultural society, and influencing industry, architecture, art, literature, commerce, food, and academia. Many post-war migrants began their lives in Australia at reception and training centres, including Bonegilla, located near Wodonga.

A colour photograph of an abstract sculpture made out of rusted iron and corrugated iron. The sculpture resembles a building with windows. There are a number of silhouettes of people depicted in rusted iron situated around the sculpture. A sculpture commemorating the migrants who spent time at the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre. Some of Block 19 can be seen in the background. Source: Mattinbgn, Wikimedia Commons.

Immediately following the end of World War II and the near invasion of Australia by Japan, the Australian Government, led by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, sought to increase the nation's population to bolster national security and address labour shortages. In 1945 the Department of Immigration was established and resolved that Australia’s population must grow 2% per year—1% of which was to come from immigration. This initiative, overseen by Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, would be one of the first steps towards the end of the “White Australia policy” as the Government began to allow migrants from countries such as Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Hungary.

A black and white photograph of a group of people standing around three cars. There are a number of single storey buildings with gabled roofs in the background. Some of the first displaced persons arriving at Bonegilla, 1948, having come by train from Melbourne. Source: State Library of Victoria.

The Australian Government also entered into an agreement with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) to resettle displaced persons. Many of these refugees were Poles, Yugoslavs, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, and Hungarians. Australia agreed to accept a minimum of 12,000 refugees a year, who were required to work for the government for two years in exchange for free passage and assistance on arrival.

A black and white photograph of a large crowd gathered around a stage. A man stands on the stage in front of a microphone and a table with an Australian flag draped over it. In the distance, a number of single storied buildings can be seen. Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell addressing new migrants at Bonegilla camp, 1 July 1949. Source: Mary Elizabeth Calwell and Museum of Australian Democracy.

The Department of Immigration established migrant reception and training centres in order to process the large number of assisted migrants arriving in Australia. Here migrants had the opportunity to learn some English while they looked for work. Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre near Wodonga was the largest and longest operating reception centre in the post-war era. Bonegilla was quickly converted from a military base in 1947 and until 1971 provided temporary accommodation to 320,000 assisted migrants, 91,000 of whom were displaced persons. The site was made up of 24 blocks comprising more than 800 buildings, including churches, banks, and sporting fields, as well as a cinema, hospital, police station, and railway platform. Today, Block 19 is all that remains of the original site.

A colour photograph of a program with the heading Welcome to Bonegilla. The program has a drawing of two women and a man wearing traditional costumes in the margin.  At the bottom of the program are the words July 1st, 1949. Welcome to Bonegilla—programme presented to the Honourable Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 1 July 1949. Source: National Library of Australia.

The experiences of those who came through these migrant reception and training centres were diverse. For some, Bonegilla represented hope and the beginning of a new life, but for others, it was a lonely and isolating experience. Bonegilla was located 12km from the nearest town, meaning new migrants were socially and geographically isolated from the rest of the Australian population. The hasty conversion of the site also meant the condition of the camps was particularly poor. In 1952 and 1961, riots broke out at Bonegilla over unemployment and living conditions.

Post-war immigration to Australia was also guided by a policy of assimilation. New migrants were expected to quickly “blend in” with the wider Australian population, discarding their own cultures, languages, customs and traditions in order to create a culturally homogenous Australian society. By the late-1960s, government policy had moved towards a policy of integration, acknowledging that migrants could retain their distinct cultural identity while meaningfully participating in Australian society.

While only Block 19 remains of the original Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre, visitors to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience can learn about the history of the site, and the stories of the people who lived there. Visit the website, and take a virtual tour.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.