Remembering Bonegilla's refugee riot


'Bonegilla' by Chris JohnstonFifty years on, a riot at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre outside Albury-Wodonga warrants recall, for host society response to newcomer disgruntlement has present-day resonances. Indeed, the growing current trend to apologise for our immigration pasts indicates on-going concerns about how Australia receives newcomers and takes in strangers. Though now they are uninvited refugees, whereas in 1961 they were invited refugees and migrants.

On 17 and 18 July 1961 assisted passage migrants, principally from Germany and Italy, and refugees from Yugoslavia (mostly Croatians), marched within the centre chanting 'We want work' and parading 'ugly signs'. They threw stones and damaged buildings. A policeman was hurt. Police reinforcements dispersed protesters with a baton charge.

The violent demonstrations caught the attention of the national, the ethnic and even some overseas media.

The Sydney Morning Herald thought the demonstrations 'un-Australian'. The Minister for Immigration, Alexander Downer, reminded migrants 'such behaviour was not tolerated in this country'. The demonstrators had caused hundreds of pounds of damage.

Investigation prompted sympathy for the demonstrators. For at least four months churchmen, consular officials and the unemployed migrants themselves had been making representations seeking ways to relieve their unemployment distress. Many of them were skilled and had been lured, they said, to come to live and work in Australia. 'Menzies' credit squeeze', had meant they were waiting up to four months for allocation to a job. This was not the 'Australia Unlimited' they had been led to expect.

The Sydney Morning Herald rebuked Downer for his handling of the incident. He had failed to show any appreciation of the plight of the unemployed migrants. Australia, it declared, had moral obligations if not contractual requirements to supply work for those who had left jobs overseas to come on the promise of work.

Downer responded with the announcement of a temporary reduction in the migrant intake. He also arranged for the unemployed at Bonegilla to be moved to city-based worker hostels, where there might be a greater range of work opportunities.

Eleven men later faced charges of riot, assault and damage to Commonwealth property. The trial, however, was aborted, when the police prosecutor prudently withdrew the charges of riot and assault. He said he was satisfied that the men before the court had not intended harm or hurt. Moreover, they had apologised. This prompted the magistrate to adjourn hearing the damage charges, although he still rebuked those before him for their behaviour.

Plainly it was deemed unwise to have unemployed migrant workers gaoled as martyrs who would inevitably draw unfavourable attention to the difficulties facing the Australian immigration program through an economic recession. No one wanted to impede future efforts to recruit migrants.

Immigration officials and publicists reassured the public that the riot was of little consequence. The media had sensationalised the wild actions of a few irresponsible stone-throwing youths, who meant no real harm. The whole thing was a storm in a tea cup. Migrants were really grateful for being allowed to settle in Australia. Bonegilla was doing a sterling job, though boredom was a major problem with long-term residents, particularly in winter. Officials and publicists tried to recover the reputation of the reception centre with improvement to the facilities and with promotional activities.

In 1982 TT.O, who had arrived as a child of Greek migrants, challenged the notion that the riot and Bonegilla were forgettable. In an ABC radio documentary impression of Bonegilla, he interviewed people who appeared as champions of those arrested for riot. This riot, for them and for TT.O, was an overlooked workers' protest, 'another Eureka' that had been effectively silenced. TT.O railed against the way the migrant experience was structured by unsympathetic policy makers and administrators. Migrants were allocated only the undesirable jobs Australians did not want to take up. They were 'industrial cannon-fodder', 'wogs for cogs', a 'bottomless pit of cheap labour'. Moreover, 'Hotel Bonegilla' was barren and boring.

Others have similarly punctured the forgetting of post-war migrant experiences. In accepting the World Youth Day Cross when it arrived in his diocese in 2008, the late Bishop of Sandhurst, Joe Grech, waved towards Bonegilla and called for a public apology: 'We should say sorry because we didn't know how to welcome them'. Eureka Street subsequently echoed Grech's call for of an apology to embrace all non Anglo-Saxon Australians.

Apologies, of course, are only meaningful if they not only prompt reflection about former shortcomings, but also address present-day problems and opportunities related, for example, to responding to new arrival disgruntlement.


Bruce PennayBruce Pennay is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University and a member of the Bonegilla Advisory Committee that helps with the interpretation and management of the Bonegilla Heritage Park. His Bonegilla research is collected here.

Topic tags: Bruce Pennay, Bonegilla, immigration, refugees, migration, riot, apology, Downer, Grech



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Existing comments

Ad a descendent of Bonegilla refugees - the first wave of people who arrived in the post war years, I can say that the attitude of the first wave was one of deepest gratitude for the country taking people in, after they were made homeless and waited in queue in displaced persons' camps with millions of others awaiting re-settlement. There was an attitude of wanting to contribute to the country and learn its ways - and some of the most successful Australians in many fields are from that Bonegilla era. Having been to the Bonegilla Museum in Bonegilla the attitude of the visitors, of whom I was one, is of grateful memories, and of being given peace after enduring incredible suffering.

The difference was that the first wave migrants waited in queue overseas, were processed, demanded nothing and came with nothing. They had no money to fly to Malaysia or Indonesia to pay people smugglers. To compare the plight of Bonegillians with current boat people is inaccurate. Are the boat people as committed to the peace of this country? Are they as much in need as refugees in refugee camps who genuinely have nothing and are awaiting acceptance by another country?

Skye | 18 July 2011  

Bonegilla was not meant for migrants to stay forever. It provided basic clean accommodation, plenty of food and opportunities to learn more English and to find work. I remember there was always plenty of work available for anybody willing to move to regional areas, Queensland or the NT. The large majority of migrants wanted to move on soon and found work within a few days or weeks. There was also a small minority of constant complainers. It seemed that a small number of migrants felt that nothing was good enough for them and that they were too good for any job or any place.

I remember that it was very hot and that the flies were very friendly. I remember that the pubs did not open until late in the morning and that the beer was expensive. I do also remember that the staff was very helpful and friendly and that the portion of meat were just enormous.

I am sure there is no need for anybody to apologise to anybody about Bonegilla. The people of Australia did at the time what was right to do at the time. Many Australians still had outdoor dunnies and hardly anybody had air-conditioning in the car or in their homes. I am sure that most migrants have fond memories of Bonegilla. The small minority of constant complainers may still complain until the day they are buried.

Beat Odermatt | 18 July 2011  

They were working migrants, today they are refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq and wars we started.

Marilyn | 18 July 2011  

Well said, Marilyn. And for asylum seekers from war torn countries, peace would be treasured.

Vacy Vlazna | 18 July 2011  

Speaking as a former guest of Hotel Bonegilla in 1949/1950 and someone whose life was at that time controlled by Immigration officials, I can't believe Beat Odermatt's comments were all written with a straight face. I am sure the sarcasm on/off indicators were omitted.

E O'Connor | 18 July 2011  

I know nothing about Bonegilla, but my family came under our own steam from another new world country as invited migrants, lured by Australian migration officials who claimed that Australia was a "land of milk and honey". My father had a successful building business in our previous home, but when we came to Australia in 1960, there was a recession. At the very least, my father was lied to and his business never really recovered. It now seems that officials lied to a lot of other migrants at that time.

Nevertheless, those of my siblings who came here with him all agree that he made the right decision. Australia is my home and I could not imagine living anywhere else.

Frank S | 18 July 2011  

To: O'CONNOR: If you were there during 1949/1950, then I am not surprised. Australia had just finished fighting in the Second World War and had to start rebuilding its own economy. When I was there, we had a few complainers, but the large majority moved and went to find work. I knew there were a few people who found Bonegilla far too comfortable and decided to stay on for month and years. If Bonegilla was bad, everyone had a choice to leave.

Beat Odermatt | 22 July 2011  


What I responded to in your original comment were your two sentences in the last paragraph that began, "I am sure".

I note you now say that you are not suprised at my 1949/50 experience because Australia was just restarting its economy etc. This is no way explains the attempt to send my father to Walhalla in Victoria and my mother, sister and I to Cowra! There are other instances where husbands were only allowed limited access to visit their wives and children in holding camps such as West Sale. My father and other men were quite vocal in their complaints!

The attitude towards Displaced Person Migrants in Australia at that time was not one of unanimous welcome at the level of the personal and the three tiers of Government. A recently published book, "Welcome to Little Europe", contains material relating to the attitudes in Australia towards migrants in the immediate post-war years.

E O'Connor | 26 July 2011  

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