Memories of Bonegilla

Greek Australians mark the 60th anniversary of the arrival of Greek migrants in Bonegilla with a photographic exhibition of a time that was

The Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre was the official employment office through which about 15,000 assisted Greek migrants were processed in what was called ‘The ICEM Greek Project’ between 1953 and 1956. It was from Bonegilla that many Greeks started work and life journeys within Australia. This weekend, the 60 year anniversary of the arrival of Greek migrants in Bonegilla will be celebrated with a photographic exhibition at the Pallaconian House in Brunswick Victoria.
In late February 1953, a party of 77 assisted Greek migrants arrived at Bonegilla. They were the first of what was to be a group of 500 Greek farmers in an ICEM (Intergovernment Commitee for European Migration) project that might lead to further Greek migration. The emphasis was to be on single male rural workers. Only some families would be involved. The initial party included sixty single males and five families, three with one child and two with two children. All 500 had arrived by mid-July 1953.
The former army camp at Bonegilla in north-east Victoria was to provide temporary accommodation for all non-British migrants as they arrived. At Bonegilla they would be processed and distributed to jobs all over Australia. Authorities explained in 1953 that as a Migrant Reception and Training Centre, Bonegilla had successfully received and processed approximately 120,000 newcomers in the five years it had been operating. The first assisted Greeks came when Bonegilla was still being refashioned into a more welcoming reception centre. The Australian Greek community referred to it as a military camp, tightly regulated and run along military lines. It retained that reputation and was sometimes referred to as a ‘concentration camp’ from which the lucky ‘escaped’.
The first assisted Greeks came at a difficult time for Australian immigration authorities. An economic recession in 1952 had pushed unemployment levels to a new post-war high. Government had been forced to review its commitment to its mass post-war immigration program. Plainly there was no point in bringing in large numbers of additional workers to Australia when there was little prospect of their obtaining work quickly. Government had decided to halve the proposed migrant intake for 1953, although it hoped this was but a temporary interruption, for it was convinced that the immigration program was necessary to bolster the country’s long-term economic development. That program would resume as soon as economic conditions improved. Indeed, Harold Holt, the Minister for Immigration, arranged a trip to Europe during the European summer of 1953 to reassure seven donor countries, including Greece, that Australia would resume recruiting large numbers of migrants in the near future. It still wanted to relieve them of their even greater unemployment problems.
In general, the work offered at Bonegilla was viewed with distaste by the Greek community in Australia. Almost all of the pre-war Greek settlers were self-employed in the catering trades. They ran small businesses relying heavily on family labour. They worried whether their countrymen would take to jobs that were ‘generally proletarian in character’. Young men might tolerate such work to get some money and a footing in the new country. But heads of families would not find it attractive. As one commentator has observed: “The place for Greek families was in urban centres with the bread winner, in a home and in the ethnic community. The tendency… was to break the two year contract, which could be done with impunity, and to settle in cities. Provided incoming assisted migrants had relatives and acquaintances in Australia they could avoid Bonegilla altogether.
Greek observers felt sorry for their compatriots who they saw arriving at Station Pier in Melbourne to be issued with yellow ICEM button indicators showing they were destined for Bonegilla. Perhaps to indicate their independence, resourcefulness and/or self-reliance, many Greeks
who arrived in post-war Australia unassisted still tell with some pride how they avoided Bonegilla.
The Greek migrants who entered Australia via Bonegilla and those they sponsored to follow them have been active in creating a commemorative centre at Block 19 Bonegilla. Many attended Bonegilla reunions or festivals in 1987, 1997, 1999, 2006 and 2007 and /or Greek reunions and celebrations of the site in 1991, 2003, 2008, 2010 and now the 60 year anniversary in 2013.
Memories of the Reception Centre vary. So do ideas about what it stands for and how it should be commemorated. For some, the bleak huts ‘in the middle of nowhere’ indicate the kind of hardships endured by those Greeks who pioneered the post-war settlement of Australia. For others the site brings back memories of youthful confidence in seeking out opportunity in a new country. Some recall the good company and good cheer of people in a similar situation: that camaraderie and support helped them through the difficulties of dislocation and re-location.
For most Greeks, Bonegilla was a footfall. For those who stayed and worked at the centre, sometimes for the duration of their two-year contract, and sometimes even longer, Bonegilla was a landfall. Many have deep and even fond memories of their life there.
The photographic exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary is on at the Pallaconian House, 253 Albert Street, Brunswick.
* The back story of the arrival of Greek migrants was taken from the book Greek journeys through Bonegilla by Bruce Pennay OAM, Charles Sturt University.