Australia is often referred to as a nation of immigrants. Following the earliest European discoveries of ‘Terra Australis’, there were continued and varied attempts at populating this newly discovered continent. The British regarded this new land to be ‘terra nullius‘ despite knowing that large numbers of Aboriginal people populated the land. Indeed, only a few years after the arrival of the First Fleet in New South Wales, the colonial governments began to grant, lease or sell lands to white settlers.

Initially the land was viewed as a penal colony for Great Britain, especially as Britain lost most of its North American colonies used as penal settlements after the American Revolutionary Wars. However, the realities of living and colonizing as well as utilising large tracts of potential agricultural lands led to gradual changes in methods of increasing the population and catering for the daily living needs of the inhabitants (food, housing, roads, etc.). Lands were opened up in various directions from the earlier settlements as much for exploratory purposes as for seeking to secure the requirements for daily living and survival.

While the earliest ‘planned’ arrivals or settlers were largely from Britain and Ireland, the gold rushes of the early 1850s both in New South Wales and Victoria saw a large number of Chinese and many other arrivals from Continental Europe and smaller numbers from the United States and New Zealand.

goldfield diggings scene, some miners wear traditional Chinese hats

Chinamen at work on the gold-fields, Ebenezer and David Syme, 1863 (detail)

Up until Australia became a Federation in 1901 each of the Australian colonies was responsible for its own immigration policies and schemes. With Federation came the Opening of the First parliament at Melbourne’s Exhibition Building.

Control over the recruitment and selection of immigrants became a Commonwealth responsibility. The passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which came to be known overseas as ‘the White Australia Policy’, indicated the firm resolve of the government of the day to preserve the racial and cultural homogeneity of Australia.

The Library holds many resources explaining the history, administration and arguments for and against the White Australia policy.

Historically much emigration or immigration from one area to another has been significantly influenced and impacted upon by social, political and economic upheavals both in the countries of origin of emigration as well as the countries receiving them.

For example, the outbreak of World War I virtually halted immigration to Australia. By the early 1920s both Australian and British governments saw that Australia’s population needed to be increased in the interests of Australia’s security and prosperity as well as that of the British Empire itself. However, the introduction of the Enemy Aliens Act 1920 prohibited the entry to Australia of people who were subjects of the countries against whom the Allies had fought during WWI – such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Similarly, the impact of the world-wide economic depression of 1929 and the years immediately after was felt in Australia as elsewhere and restrictions were again placed on alien immigration to Australia.

After World War II, Australia once again began to feel the adverse impact of the many lives lost in the wars as well as the effect of the slump in births during the years between WWI and the Great Depression. The subsequent view to increase the population of Australia led to a new policy of mass migration under Prime Minister Chifley. This was as much for its own protection – following the Japanese air raids on allied shipping in the port of Darwin– as for its increased need for labour to engage in the growth of its economy through developing of manufacturing industries.

Arthur Calwell, initially Information Minister in the Curtin government, became the first Minister of Immigration in the Chifley government and was very supportive and proactive in pushing for a greatly expanded mass immigration program. This new policy came to be referred to under the slogan ‘populate or perish’.

two men in suits

Lt Gen Sir Vernon Sturdee with Arthur Calwell,Herald & Weekly Times Limited portrait collection

During the next two decades following World War II several hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to Australia. In addition to those coming from the British Isles many came from a broader pool of countries from Continental Europe.

Changes in public attitudes towards the White Australia policy particularly after World War II saw the rise of various voices opposing the ‘colour bar’ or racism of this policy which put forward their proposal for changes to Australia’s immigration policy.

The White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled over time by 1973 and finally replaced by the evolution of a policy which came to be known as Multiculturalism – leading to various state & federal government agencies adopting this policy:

For many immigrants coming to Victoria during the period 1947 to 1971, the Bonegilla Migrant Hostel in northern Victoria was their first ‘home’ in Australia.  It was Arthur Calwell’s decision to refit these old military camps to house the huge flux of post-war immigrants.  There were similar conversions of military camps to migrant hostels and reception centres in several locations around Australia. Many of those who came soon after the war were ‘displaced persons’. From the 1950s until its closure in 1971, the main occupants of Bonegilla were people who came to Australia seeking employment on government-assisted migration.

Much can be learnt about migrant life at Bonegilla from the National Archives of Australia’s Bonegilla collection and the Migration Heritage Centre’s exhibition So Much Sky.

smiling girl and woman with suitcases

Some migrants settling into these quarters at Bonegilla, 1949

Of the 170,000 displaced persons who came to Australia in the immediate post-war period, nearly half lived at Bonegilla for their first weeks or months in the country. They learned to speak English and adapt to life in Australia at the centre, before being moved to areas where there were labour shortages to find employment, helping boost Australia’s population and economy in the process.

In 1992, the Australian High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. This decision legally recognised certain land claims of Indigenous Australians in Australia prior to British Settlement. Legislation was subsequently enacted and later amended to recognise Native title claims over land in Australia.

More to explore

The Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation website includes reports, education resources, position statements from a range of views, media releases, comment on Mabo and Wik legislation.

Find out more about Native title & the Yorta Yorta on the Ergo website for teachers.

Get started researching records of passengers arriving in and leaving Victoria with our Victorian immigration and emigration research guide.

There are many publications in the Library about Australian Immigration history including the people and their ethno-cultural origins.

There are also many publications about different ethnic groups in Australia, held in the State Library of Victoria’s collections:

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This article has 3 comments

  1. Thanks for your article Berta. I had forgotten about my own grandparents living at Bonegilla in 1957, so thanks to you, I researched it a bit more and now I have requested their Bonegilla ID Card from the NAA!

  2. Thank you, this post is timely given the recent demonstration in St Kilda that seemed to target current immigration policy.

    Sadly some people still see migrants as a burden, not a benefit.

    I didn’t realise the white Australia policy was dismantled as late as 1973. My family immigrated to Australia in 1974 – and I never, not for one moment, felt I didn’t belong here. I suppose that is less to do with the change in policy and more to do with my childish sense of adventure.

    Thanks again for this piece

  3. Miryana Baran

    I am searching for information and photos on the Broadmeadows Migrant Hostel. There appear to be a lot of photos of Bonegilla and other Migrant camps, but not Broadmeadows. Please direct me where I can find this information.

    Kind regards,
    Miryana Baran

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