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Commentary on: A first home for many migrants »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Silver Cities...

1950s and 1960s - Reception camps often a tough introduction to life in Australia

The migrant ships which brought the immigrants often unloaded them directly to special trains that would take them far from the sea to migrant camps. Many of the immigrants from Europe experienced their first days, months or sometimes years in the various immigration settlement camps established by the government. These camps tended to be segregated, with the British going to the more comfortable and accessible camps, while other Europeans were sent to more distant and primitive locations. The camps were supposed to be temporary places until immigrants could find employment and move on to their first job. One of the most infamous of these camps was at Bonegilla, near Albury Wodonga, on the NSW/Victoria border.

The camps were usually former army or prisoner of war accommodation, and were often made from corrugated iron. They became known as "silver cities", an ironic label which used their physical appearance of rows of huts to reflect on the difficult conditions and cultural shock that many immigrants experienced. These silver cities have become part of the linking memories for immigrants from many European societies - from the DPs (displaced persons) of the 1950s, to the Italian labourers of the 1960s.

Bonegilla Immigration Reception and Training Centre was initially focussed on the DPs who were contracted for two years to any job to which they were assigned by the government. Their past lives were "cancelled" - whether they had been brain surgeons or truck drivers, the men were designated as "labourers", and the women "domestics". The dormitories were all single sex - even married couples were split up. Slowly conditions were improved, though blockages in the labour market meant that employment was often not available for many months. Tensions in the camp sometimes exploded; there were threats of riots in 1952, and real riots in 1961, with armoured cars being called out, and a number of immigrants being arrested. Bonegilla was closed in 1971, after some 300,000 people had been through it.

The camp experience has been used in a number of Australian drama productions - for instance, the film Silver City in the 1980s, and the ABC television series Bordertown in the 1990s. Twenty-five years after its closure it had achieved the status of a mythical place.

Further reference:
Jupp, James (ed) The Australian People: an Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origins, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1988.