Life at Bonegilla – Australia’s first migrant hostel
One of the first places AMES Australia worked to support newly arrived migrants was the Bonegilla migrant hostel near Wodonga.
AMES teachers taught English in the WWII era Nissen huts at the camp.
It opened in 1947, a hurriedly prepared facility built to cope with the influx of post-war migrants.
The wooden huts were stiflingly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.
At first husbands and wives were forced to live in separate dormitories. There were no personal cooking facilities and showers and toilets were in separate blocks and migrants had to endure totally alien food served on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.
Being sent to a former army camp in the Australian bush was a culture shock for many. Most people had lived all their lives in densely packed European cities.
The accommodation was cramped Nissen huts with igloo-style corrugated iron rooves.
While at Bonegilla, migrants were given medical examinations and chest X-rays to check for tuberculosis; they were given clothing and received English lessons. Social security benefits were arranged and people were assessed for employment.
The camp was gradually upgraded with newer facilities and better buildings – later on, migrants found themselves in family accommodation with kitchens and separate bedrooms.
But these improvements took twenty years.
In the 24 years in which the camp operated, the estimated amount of arrivals was approximately 309,000. It remains the largest and longest-lasting migrant reception centre in post-war Australia.
In 1945 the Australian Government actively sought to implement policies that would increase the natural population.
The Aliens Act of 1947, the Nationality and Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Migration Act of 1958 increased migration although it placed migrants under surveillance and limited social access.
The Assisted passage Scheme encouraged passage for British migrants in 1946. However, less than 7000 British citizens migrated during the period, which meant that the government instead turned to the displaced persons and war refugees - of which there were an estimated 1.6 million - in French, Austrian, and German camps.
These migrants were granted passage under a two-year labour contract to be housed at the reception and training centres to adjust to the ‘Australian way of life'. Many ended up at Bonegilla.
The hostel operated until 1971.