First Impressions of Bonegilla

Leaving all they knew behind them, migrants travelled thousands of kilometres to arrive at Bonegilla, a former army camp in the Australian bush. From 1947 to 1971 the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre provided the first home in Australia for over 320,000 migrants from more than 30 nations. 

On arrival at Bonegilla, newcomers were allocated a hut and issued with eating utensils, crockery, towels and bedding. The living conditions were very basic. Initially, little was done to change the former army camp into a migrant accommodation centre. Bonegilla's army beginnings meant that the accommodation was austere, and the eating, washing and recreation facilities were communal. Improvements slowly made the camp more welcoming, but its original military character remained.

Family members were often separated. In the early years of operation, men were housed in one hut, single women in another, and women with children in yet another. Government officials made no comment on this separation of husbands and wives, and of families. Nor did they explain or explore the impact of further splitting families by moving non-working dependants to holding camps at Uranquinty and Cowra. From 1951 on, the huts at Bonegilla were divided into cubbyhole-sized cubicles, each slightly less than 4m by 3m, so as to house families together.

However, it had always been the government's intention that Bonegilla would be a mere starting point to allow migrants to catch their breath before becoming part of the Australian community; it was 'quite unsuitable for prolonged family living'.  The number of migrants at Bonegilla at any one time fluctuated between 1,500 and 8,500. Naturally, the refugee and migrant arrival experiences were many and varied.

Australian Government Regional Arts Fund