Nobody’s Sons: Migrant Protest at Bonegilla

July 12 was another emotional night of history telling and listening. I was afforded the opportunity to speak at Museo Italiano and Co.As.It about migrant resistance and protest. It followed an exclusive reading from Tess Lyssiotis’s play Hotel Bonegillawhich was first staged in the 1980s, and is running at La Mamma in Carlton, Melbourne from 19 to 21 July.

I began by reading out a protest letter, penned by unemployed assisted Italian migrants and presented at a meeting of the Trades and Labour Council of Queensland in mid 1952:

We Italian Migrants who were assisted by the Australian Government appeal to Australian Workers for your solidarity in helping us to gain our rights. Many of you think that we are here to take your jobs and bread, but this does not correspond to fact. We came with a Contract, in which the Australian Government made themselves responsible for two years, that we were to work at their direction. Today, this Government has no intention of honouring this Contract, and leaves us unemployed, which we think, in this manner, will not only damage ourselves, but the Australian Workers as well. All that we ask is the right that the promise of work be kept, but, if asking for work means damaging Australian conditions, we are prepared to go home, as long as the Government is prepared to reimburse us for our expenses and damages. To achieve this, we need your solidarity and co-operation. WE WONDER JUST AS YOU WONDER, with unemployment growing, WHY DO THEY BRING US HERE? … We, like you, are being betrayed. We have no wish to be passive and suffer in silence. We present our cause and situation to all, because we wish to let you know of our humiliation. We have approached the Trade Unions for support, so that they may assist in the forcing of the Government in honouring the Contract. … [the Minister for Immigration] Holt [is] responsible for our troubles. Holt must decide what he intends to do with we assisted Migrants, because we are sick of being pushed around, and being treated as nobody’s sons. We are Workers, and very proud of that honour. We are not beggars. [1]

The immigration agreement between Italy and Australia was announced the previous year, on 28 March 1951. By the early 1960s, over 200 000 Italians lived in Australia. This was one immigration scheme among many over the postwar period, which eventually saw Australia’s population increase by almost 3 million from 1947 to 1971. The agreement with Italy stated that the Australian government, and I quote: ‘assumes full responsibility for the [migrant’s] reception at disembarkation places established in Australia and … for their distribution [across the country] and into employment, provisional lodging … and for welfare matters’ [2]. Similar agreements were made with other assisted migrants who signed a 2 year work contract with the government.

Young working-age men were the initial targets of this agreement (just as it was with previous post-war immigration agreements). They were required to fill labour shortages in heavy industry and agriculture. Of those who did gain employment before the work riots of 1952, many complained about the vast and dirty factories, asbestos mines and large schemes like the Tasmanian hydro-electric scheme in which they were placed, where they worked with ‘antiquated equipment’ and in freezing conditions, and were accommodated in makeshift hostels or tents. Those placed on remote farms cited poor conditions and for little pay. Many had little knowledge of the specific conditions of their work before they signed the contract.

Most of these assisted Italian migrant were accommodated at first in one of the Department of Immigration’s centres (like Bonegilla in rural Victoria, which was the Department of Immigration’s largest and longest running ‘Reception and Training Centre’ for postwar refugees and then assisted migrants). Once allocated employment, men would be accommodated in a workers’ hostel run by Commonwealth Hostels Limited (which was part of the Department of Labour and National Service)—if they had dependents (women and children) they were separately accommodated in a Department of Immigration ‘Holding Centre’.

A proportion of their passage to Australia was paid for by the Italian and Australian governments, with the remaining proportion covered by a loan from an Italian charitable agency, the Italian Institute of Credit for Italian Labour Abroad. This loan would need to be repaid by the Italian migrant in monthly repayments.

Australian immigration officials made no secret of the fact that Italians, ‘particularly Sicilians and Calabrians, are not the most desirable types’, reminding Italian officials that their emigrants had, they said, a ‘low racial status’ in Australia. In an assimilationist White Australia, Italians had only recently become ‘white enough’ for immigration (a statement that sparked an amused murmur from the audience), and this was in some ways tied to the Cold War politics of the day. The rise of votes for communist and socialist parties in Italy in the late 1940s had sparked anxiety in some Western nations, including the UK and America, and by default, Australia, whose foreign policy was intricately linked to these two nations. As historian Richard Bosworth put it: ‘British and American planners, politicians and capitalists had long emphasised that Australia could help the “Western cause” and keep Communist Cossacks from tying up their tanks to Bernini’s colonnades by deeming the Italians honorary whites and letting their people’ migrate to Australia.

While many immigrants did not intend to stay, the stakes of their emigration journey were still high: they had dependents back home, families for whom their wages would provide.

In 1952, there was an economic slowdown. Inflation increased and unemployment grew. Several public works were closed by the government because of credit restrictions. The enormous cost of the immigration scheme, in addition to an increased defence spending following Australia’s entry into the Korean War in 1950, also contributed. Discrimination against migrant workers was rife: newspaper advertisements stated, ‘only Australians and British need apply’.  Unions called on the government to halt the immigration scheme or risk rising unemployment.

Hopeful Italian immigrants entered this context. Between October 1951 and June 1952, over 5000 assisted Italian migrants arrived in Australia—some found work at BHP; but between June and December an additional 4527 arrived.  Thousands more disembarked in the next quarter. By July, over 1000 Italian migrants had been resident at Bonegilla without work for more than 4 months. While they received unemployment benefits, the cost of sending money back home, repaying their loans to the Italian Institute of Credit for Italian Labour Abroad, and paying for accommodation at Bonegilla, left them with very little to live on. Uncomfortable conditions at Bonegilla increased frustrations. Winters at Bonegilla were bitterly cold and damp, and accommodation huts were not heated. The huts within these camps were Army-standard corrugated galvanised iron fixed to a timber frame—many with roofs of corrugated asbestos.

In July 1952, unemployment conditions reached their worst. The Bonegilla administration advised the Department of Immigration that it would be unable to accommodate any more migrants from the middle of July. And yet, two vessels carrying about 1300 migrants were due to arrive and be processed at Bonegilla from 21 July.

All centres and hostels, not just Bonegilla, were in ferment, with the Italians organising meetings, sending letters to Italian and Australian newspapers complaining of the government’s deception in bringing them to Australia, petitioning authorities in the Department of Immigration and warning centre administration of protests to come. On the 17th July, they rioted: they gathered around the civic centre demanding ‘work or repatriation’, they threw stones, and set fire to an employment office. While the government denied the use of army personnel on unarmed civilians, several participants in the riot recall confronting armoured tanks, which were called in from nearby Bandiana base.

Protests continued in Colmslie, Wacol (Queensland), and Villawood (New South Wales) immigration centres. In one public statement, protesting Italians stated:


We signed a contract which we are ready to respect. It’s up to you consuls to make the other contradicting party, Australia, respect it. If there isn’t any work, repatriate us and do so at government expense. We were not all unemployed in Italy, and it’s preferable to be unemployed at home rather than abroad. If we don’t get work or repatriation, we’ll create trouble until they arrest and deport us.

At Villawood and Matraville centres in Sydney, Italian migrants returning from temporary work (which consisted of fruit picking on remote farms for up to ten weeks, or, according to departmental memos, to ‘jobs unknown’ at Army, Navy or Air Force bases across the country, including Duntroon in the ACT, and Dubbo, Singleton and Moorebank in New South Wales [3]) protested over unemployment and centre conditions. Police were called in to contain 200 Italian migrants ‘armed with iron bars and lengths of timber’, marching on the consulate offices in protest against lack of jobs. As he had on previous occasions, the Minister for Immigration Harold Holt accused communist agitators of being responsible, and charges were laid against five men aged between 19 and 25.

The talk obviously addressed a particularly Italian version of Bonegilla and assisted migration. It shared stories with which many were familiar. The riot of 1952 is a predominantly Italian story. It is not surprising that, in the late 1990s, members of the Italian community in the city of Moreland, Melbourne, nominated Bonegilla as a heritage place ‘associated with sadness and pain’.  This version dominates popular and oral retellings of Italians at Bonegilla. Certainly, those protesting at Bonegilla in July 1952 felt trapped and treated like children. It is an anger that some still harbour.

I invited anyone who wished to share their stories to speak, or come speak to me later. Many agreed that Bonegilla was a terrible place for Italian migrants, and that protest was seen as the only option. For others in the audience, including a couple from Lithuania, and a family who migrated in the early 1960s, Bonegilla  was a welcoming place, and they expressed surprise and dismay that Italians had it so tough. This too sparked further recollections, and the inevitable mention of mutton…

There will be another chance to see Hotel Bonegilla (this time with actors from the local  community) in November at the HotHouse in Wodonga. This run will occur during the 70th anniversary of Bonegilla’s opening as a migrant reception centre. Tickets are available now.

[1] NAA, A6980, S250393, ‘Meeting of Trades and Labour Council of QLD’, November 1952.

[2] Agreement Clause 10, cited in Bosworth, p. 548.

[3] MP1722/1, 1952/47A/5136 PART 2, Wastage from Emergency Employment of Italian Migrants.


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