“We came in the night, I think it was about 2.30, 3 o’clock in Bonegilla,” Mr Srsen told SBS News.
The mess hall at Bonegilla migrant camp. Source: Supplied / Albury Library Museum
“In the morning … when I walk out, I saw nothing but a barracks … there was a wooden building [a kitchen] and all bush around – shocking.
“I think we saw one or two or three kangaroos around on the edges of the fence … [I thought] is this what Australia look like? Is this where they brought us? Where the hell we are?”
Residents of Bonegilla migrant centre. Source: Supplied / Albury Library Museum
Mr Srsen was one of more than 300,000 people processed through the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre between 1947 and 1971, with some estimates suggesting that up to one-in-20 Australians may have a connection to the site.
Historian Bruce Pennay of Charles Stuart University suspects the one-in-20 figure may now be out-of-date given the large number of migrants that have since arrived in Australia from Asian countries, but says the site is still of national significance.
Why did migrants have to go through Bonegilla?
Many post-World War Two refugees and other displaced persons also went through the centre, where they underwent health and customs checks and were assigned jobs around Australia.
Some of the first ‘displaced persons’ to arrive in Australia enjoying themselves on the banks of the Hume Weir near Bonegilla, 1947.
At the time there was high demand for labourers and domestic workers in Australia, and many migrants were sent to hotels, boarding schools and private homes.
“They didn’t have much say in where they were going and didn’t have much say at all on what jobs they were to do.”
The kitchen at Bonegilla had to cater to thousands of migrants. Source: Supplied
Bonegilla was not the only migrant centre set up in Australia – there were others in Western Australia and Bathurst, NSW – but it was the biggest and longest-running centre in the post-war era.
Most migrants stayed around three weeks, although some got jobs at the centre and even went on to live there with their families for many years afterwards.
Where did Bonegilla’s residents come from and how did they get there?
Many arrived on ships and were taken to the centre by train.
A new exhibition at Bonegilla celebrates its 75th anniversary with stories from many of the thousands of migrants who were processed through the migrant centre. Source: Supplied / Peter Charlesworth/City of Wodonga
But Mr Srsen said he flew to Australia on a plane from Austria and was taken by bus to Bonegilla, travelling along the Hume Highway at night.
“I said, ‘what the hell is this?’. They were big semi-trailers and they installed all the lights around the truck so it looks enormous, and I never saw in Europe these kinds of things in the night.”
Why preserving Bonegilla’s history matters
Today all that remains of the centre is Block 19.
Children at Bonegilla Primary School. Source: Supplied / Albury Library Museum
Associate Professor Pennay said the Bonegilla Migrant Experiences centre attempted to tell the stories of the migrant experience.
“We’ve got so many people who are migrants in Australia,” he said. “We think it’s important for Australia to reflect on how Australia went about taking people in, in the post-war years, and how it goes about taking them in now.”
An end to the White Australia policy
After the war, Associate Professor Pennay said Australia’s immigration minister Arthur Calwell wanted to bring people in from Europe to increase the workforce in Australia and grow its population so it could defend itself.
The Bonegilla migrant centre processed thousands of migrants after World War Two. Source: Supplied / City of Wodonga
He said the centre now sat alongside places like the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House as places of significance on Australia’s National Heritage List.
“That’s telling us something about Australia isn’t it? That’s telling us about being a migrant country, as well as a country that’s got a Great Barrier Reef and an Opera House.”