In acknowledgement of World Refugee Week we offer this story of yesteryear when Australia was more welcoming of people seeking asylum…
The following is an excerpt from The Redwoods of The Otway Ranges by Roger Smith.
The primary purpose of the new camp at the Aire bridge crossing was to accommodate refugees displaced from their homes and countries in Eastern Europe following World War II. As part of a policy of ‘populate or perish’ the Australian Government sponsored immigration, mainly from the United Kingdom, during the period of 1944 to 1947. But elsewhere in war-ravaged Europe there were several million refugees or displaced persons who had either been forced into Germany to labour for the Nazi war machine or who were anti-communist and had fled before the Iron Curtain came down. From about 1948 onwards, the Australian Government’s immigration department focused on these displaced persons.
The immigration program opened the door to thousands of displaced persons and British migrants. Between 1947 and 1951 about 170,000 immigrants came to settle in Australia. A considerable number were well educated and had fled their place of birth for fear of either the Germans or the Russians. As part of the placement program, fit and healthy young men were selected to work as labourers for two years in various jobs around Australia, mainly at rural locations and often in public forest improvement initiatives.
In return for their passage and settlement in Australia, the displaced persons had to enter into a two-year contract with the Australian Government, which required them to work wherever directed. Most of the work allocated was of an unskilled nature and little notice was taken of any prior experience or professional qualifications. All men became labourers and the women were employed as domestic workers.
Many of these men and women had previously lived in either concentration camps, prisoner-of-war (POW) camps or other detention centres. When they arrived in Australia, life at first did not seem to have changed much from living conditions in their country of origin. Many of the displaced persons had endured similar conditions in Europe at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi regime. To make their situation worse, they had to contend with the language barrier, isolation from friends and family and the occasionally less-than-friendly treatment from their Australian workmates.
Having arrived in the country and been processed at immigration centres such as Bathurst in New South Wales, Bonegilla in Victoria or Northam in Western Australia, these displaced persons were dispatched to some of the most isolated places in the country. They received free transport to work, free working clothes, free food in camps and free job placements anywhere in Australia. Some of these jobs included the building and maintenance of railway lines, dam construction, working in the mines or blast furnaces, harvesting sugar cane, fruit picking and the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Many of the men from countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and, later, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were set to work in various parts of Victoria establishing plantations, building roads and other forms of forest-based employment. Although these men were officially known in bureaucratic dealings as displaced persons, the local people in the country towns to which they were assigned referred to them as Balts, because many of them came from the Baltic states. Official correspondence of the day even used this terminology.
The first batch of ‘Balts’ destined for the Otway forests arrived in Colac on 8 April 1949, having travelled by train from the processing centre at Bathurst in New South Wales. This group of fifteen men stayed overnight at the YMCA in Melbourne before catching the train to Colac, where they were given lunch by the local CWA. They were then transported in an open tray truck along the rough and winding road to Beech Forest, where they were allocated wet-weather gear before the final journey to their new home – the refitted Aire Valley Camp at the edge of the Redwood plantation. The slender, broom-handle-sized young Redwoods, with spindly branches almost touching the walls of the huts, were then just 13 years of age. It is somewhat ironic that, in the eyes of the incoming inhabitants, the Aire Valley camp would not have appeared too dissimilar to the POW camps from which some of these men had been released a couple of years earlier.
This is a short excerpt from The Redwoods of The Otway Ranges by Roger Smith reprinted with kind permission