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Remembering Bonegilla's refugee riot

  • 18 July 2011

Fifty 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