There has been quite a bit of blabber recently about so-called boat people and the place being overrun with illegal’s (what a lovely term to describe people by). Sadly these sentiments are nothing new, they have been going on since refugees began arriving in any sort of numbers in this country.
Ever since Luciano Rizzo rowed out to feed the Maltese who were confined to their refugee ship his Sydney pasta in 1916, there has been a strange aversion to people arriving by boat. Maybe it’s a deep down guilt about the first European arrival.
After World War II there was however a time when refugees and migrants were welcomed by the public and government alike. Following the horrors of the Second World War in Europe, thousands were wanting to get out and were looking for somewhere far away from the war. Australia was keen to populate, partly to protect itself from a supposed Asian threat (oh yes that’s right, not all refugees were that welcome) and also to get its economy going again.
With this in mind Australia welcomed over 470,000 migrants from Europe between 1947 and 1951. With huge numbers arriving new accommodation needed to be found quickly to house and process everybody. With the end of the war, there were now plenty of ex-military sites spare that could be put to good use. One such was the former Villawood munitions factory.
In 1949 the Chifley government resumed part of the site and opened the Villawood Migrant Hostel with accommodation provided in army style Nissen huts. By 1964 it was one of the largest migrant hostels in the country housing 1425 people with accommodation, dining halls, TV hut (the latest in migrant home entertainment), movie hall, recreation hall, sports ground, classrooms, childcare centre, shop and a post office.
The communal spaces became the focus of migrant life in the hostel. Some of the more famous members of the migrant community included all the members of The Easybeats and two brothers, Malcolm and Angus Young who went on to form AC/DC.
A new wave of refugees began arriving in 1975 after the end of the Vietnam War, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese sought a place to go. At first the Whitlam government was slow off of the mark, accepting only 500.
Then in December 1976 the argument changed with the arrival of the first refugees on a boat. The first two boats came in unnoticed but a third boat sparked a tabloid panic. The Melbourne Sun shrieked that ‘ today’s trickle of unannounced visitors to our lonely northern coastline could well become a tide of human flotsam’. Does this rhetoric ever change? It’s almost 35 years and we are still hearing the same hollow line. Despite this the Fraser government stepped up and took people in. By the end of 1977 we had taken 5000 (of which only 1000 arrived by boat). There was a small condition however being that Australian officials would select and process ‘ would be’ boat people at ports north of Darwin. Still between 1978 and 1982 took in 65, 000 refugees.
As before many were placed at Villawood. By now the Nissen Huts were gone and replaced with multi-storied motel style accommodation. A small change had occurred at the centre however as a small part of it was now named the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre to provide security accommodation for up to 48 people.
By 1983 the hostel had closed altogether and the Detention Centre had taken over the entire space. Sadly with the change to a system of detention came a more hostile environment and with that came more controversy and scandal.
As long as we head off overseas to fight in wars there will be refugees wanting to get away from it.
Despite all of the hullabaloo in the past and at the moment, Australia and Sydney have been made richer and a better place because people have wanted to come here.
That’s why we love the place so much.