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The changing face of modern Australia – 1950s to 1970s

After the Second World War (1939–45) the Australian government committed to a vigorous and sustained immigration program. The purpose of this ambitious program was to meet labour shortages, protect Australia from external threat and create prosperity. As a result, from 1945 to 1975 Australia's population almost doubled from 7½ million to 13 million. About 3 million migrants and refugees arrived.

Spanish immigrants on board on their way to Australia, courtesy of South Australian Migration Museum

This was a major break in policy. It was not the support for immigration that was new, as Australia had been supporting immigration since its inception and accepting refugees since the 1830s. Indeed, Australian society was characterised by an expanded migration of people, especially men from southern Europe, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean in the years prior to the Second World War. This migration had contributed to the making of modern Australia.

However, in July 1947, the Australian Government entered into an agreement with the new International Refugee Organisation to settle displaced people from camps in Europe. The difference between a migrant and a refugee is explained by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency:

Economic migrants normally leave a country voluntarily to seek a better life. Should they elect to return home, they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees flee because of the threat of persecution and cannot return safely to their homes in the prevailing circumstances.

Refugee and humanitarian entries in employment, courtesy of Refugee Council

After the Second World War, the Australian government assumed that its main source of immigrants would be Western Europe, but half the immigrants in the 1950s and 60s were from the European continent. In these two decades, Australia welcomed large groups of people, mostly from Eastern Europe: Poland, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The overwhelming majority of refugees were Eastern Europeans fleeing persecution in Soviet Bloc countries.

In the following two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, the refugee intake began to diversify.

In 1972, 198 Asians expelled by Uganda's President Idi Amin were settled. Humanitarian settlement from Chile commenced the following year after a military coup deposed the Allende Government. Cypriot refugees began arriving after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 and the 1975 war in East Timor brought 2,500 evacuees to Darwin, marking the beginning of a Timorese refugee diaspora in Australia.
History of Australia's refugee program, Refugee Council of Australia

From the mid-1970s the policy changed again. Mass migration programs for British and European immigrants ended, the remnants of the White Australia Policy were abolished, and arrivals began to come from countries closer to Australia. At the same time political and community support for immigration weakened and the catchcry 'Populate of Perish' lost favour.

Ultimately, by the late 1970s, Australia had become far more culturally diverse, with many ways of being Australian and many new social networks and institutions. Iconic contributions to Australia's identity were made by these post war arrivals.

Control cabin operator, hot reversing mill, Alcoa, Point Henry, Geelong, 1970, image by Wolfgang Sievers, courtesy of National Library of Australian, pic-an24432276-v

In the design arts, Harry Seidler, an Austrian refugee from Nazi Europe helped define modern architecture in Australia.  Another student of the Bauhaus principles, studying in Gemany in 1938, Wolfgang Sievers, a photographer, presented images of Australia as a modern manufacturing nation that were used to advertise its global presence in the decades following the war. The Australian contemporary craft movement in ceramics, textiles and wood work reflects the engagement of Japanese and English potters, Hungarian weavers and Danish wood workers who migrated to Australia.

Modern Australian Fashion has been defined by Chinese silks, Italian suiting and tailoring, Japanese design in coats and thongs, Indonesian sarongs and Indian saris – all contributed by migrants and refugees.

Australia's international standing in medicine reflects the outstanding contributions of its migrants and refugees. Bernard Katz, a naturalised Australian, born in Leipzig, Germany, fled Europe and completed his studies at Sydney Hospital, before winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1970. Victor Chang who pioneered modern heart transplant surgery was born in Shanghai and came to Australia in 1953.

Southern and eastern European arrivals established milk bars, redefined the experience of cafés and Australian food. So too, modern dance and the unique sounds of Australian rock, pop, folk and jazz music reflect the arrival of peoples from all around the globe.

Displaced persons and postwar refugees

Latvian DPs (Displaced Persons) at the Woodside Hostel, 1950. Courtesy South Australian Migration Museum.

Between 1947 and 1953 more than 170,000 of the one million European displaced persons were accepted into Australia as refugees from war-torn Europe. They arrived under the Mass Resettlement Scheme for Displaced Persons. They were the first of the postwar non-British European arrivals.

Whilst a few hundred Jews arrived as Displaced Persons, most of the 25,000 Jewish refugees who made it to Australia did so through the efforts of Australian Jewish relief organisations such as the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund.

In the 1950s and 60s, Australia accepted refugees from a number of places, including Italians and Yugoslavs displaced from the Trieste region of northern Italy, as well as Hungarians, White Russians, Czechs, and Slovaks. Most of them had fled communist regimes. The government did not impose work contracts in exchange for resettlement as it had done with Displaced Persons after the war.

The quest for people – 'populate or perish' – 1950s and 1960s

Schemes promoting migration from Britain

The first families arrive under the 'Bring Out A Briton' migration scheme, on the Oronsay, 1957. Courtesy National Archives of Australia: A12111, 1/1957/7/27.

The European Displaced Persons who arrived up to 1953 did not displace British immigrants from their place as preferred arrivals. The first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell counted upon 10 British immigrants arriving for every one immigrant from Europe.

From 1945 to 1975, of the 1.5 million British immigrants who arrived in Australia, most came out as a result of an Assisted Passage Scheme. Bring Out a Briton was a heavily promoted scheme launched in 1957 in which people could nominate friends and relatives, and employers could nominate types of workers, for assisted passage. In return sponsors provided initial accommodation. In the 1960s Australia ran a comprehensive promotion campaign throughout Britain. The 'Nest Egg Scheme gave assisted passage without the need for nomination to any family who had more than £500.

Child migrants and farm boys

Children working at the Havilah Little Children's Home, Wahroongah, New South Wales, photographer unknown. Courtesy National Museum of Australia

Soon after the war, Australia and Britain resumed bringing child migrants to Australia. The children were sent to training farms and church-run orphanages, for long-term care and education. Most child migrants were not orphans but had been placed in British welfare institutions because of family difficulties. Once in Australian orphanages, child migrants were denied contact with parents and siblings.

This practice was not questioned for some years but came to the fore in 2009 when the Australian government made a national apology to Forgotten Australians including former child migrants. From the apology came funding for the Inside exhibition on life in children's institutions.

The Australian and British governments also resumed assisting young British boys to settle in Australia as 'farm boys'. Later they could nominate their families for assisted passage.

A 'balanced intake'

Dutch Migrants arriving in 1954, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

From the early 1950s the Australian government negotiated immigration agreements with European countries. The government was concerned to maintain what it termed 'a balanced intake' that would not threaten Australia's Anglo-Celtic identity and culture. Therefore, after British immigrants, the Department of Immigration preferred Dutch, West Germans, Danes and other western and northern Europeans.

The least preferred were southern Europeans. Of the southern Europeans who qualified for assisted passage, most were likely to be young single men, generally unskilled, whose labour was thought likely to benefit Australian industry.

Welcome to Australia

Mealtime at Bonegilla Migrant Centre, 1949. Courtesy National Archives of Australia: A12111, 1/1949/22/9.

For some immigrants the sea voyage to Australia was an adventure and the holiday of a lifetime. For others it was a nightmare of seasickness and a wrench from the familiar.

Migrant reception centres, also termed hostels, holding centres. or more commonly migrant camps, were the first taste of life in Australia for Displaced Persons and many other assisted immigrants and refugees. The number of hostels varied according to need, but in the late 1950s over 30 operated across the states. Most were refurbished military barracks. Bathrooms, toilets, showers and laundries were in communal blocks.

Many European arrivals found it hard to adjust to the Australian preference for lamb. Endless meals of lamb chops turned many a stomach. Stories abound of people sneaking food and primitive cooking equipment into the huts to try to create the tastes of home.

Polish immigrant Eudoxia Rakovska meets a goanna.

Over 300,000 assisted immigrants and refugees stayed at Bonegilla, Victoria between 1947 and its closure in 1971. It was the main processing centre for Displaced Persons and there they began to make up for time and their youth lost to war in Europe. Displaced Persons were required to attend English classes while they were resident in hostels.

'Make us one people'

In the 1960s Commonwealth and State governments also reassessed policies that discriminated against Indigenous Australians. Ironically in the 1890s 'One People, One Destiny' was the slogan for a Federation that excluded Indigenous Australians and non-European settlers.

In 1967 the Australian people overwhelmingly voted 'yes' in a referendum to amend the constitution so that Indigenous Australians could be included in the census.

Postwar exceptions to White Australia

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the White Australia Policy remained a guiding force in determining the make-up of the Australian population. Although small numbers of non-Europeans and part-Europeans were admitted into Australia, it was only according to exemption categories introduced in response to particular cases. This had been the practice since 1901.

The Australian government made small but significant changes to the White Australia Policy during the 1950s. In 1956 non-European residents were allowed to apply for citizenship. In the 1958 Migration Act the infamous Dictation Test was abolished as a method for excluding non-European arrivals. The government used other entry controls.

In the 1960s, public opinion began to openly criticise Australia's restrictive immigration policies. It was also becoming harder to justify the White Australia Policy on the international front. In a cautious move in 1966 the government allowed non-Europeans with professional and academic qualifications that were in demand in Australia to apply for entry.


Snowy Mountains Scheme, two workers begin removing concrete framework from a newly lined section of the Tooma tunnel, 1960. Courtesy National Archives of Australia: A12111, 2004/00287481.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme symbolised the pivotal role of immigrants in Australia's postwar development. This huge engineering and construction project began in 1949. It diverted the waters of the Snowy and Tumut Rivers from the Great Dividing Range westward onto the dry inland plains for irrigation and also to generate electricity. Migrant labour made this project achievable.

For two years after their arrival, Displaced Persons were required to work on construction projects, for government utilities and in factories, often in remote and harsh locations. Camaraderie developed among Displaced Persons, immigrants from Europe and the Australian-born workers on these projects.

Migrants poured in to fill the job vacancies in the coal and steel industries, rail and shipyards, and the construction of dams, bridges, roads, houses, schools and offices in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Others found work on assembly lines making consumer goods.

Italian workers at the Spinelli knitting factory, courtesy of South Australian Migration Museum.

Skilled or professional migrants often sometimes had difficulty getting their qualifications and skills recognised. As a consequence, migrants have enriched Australian life with their craft skills and expertise with food.

Migrant women were a significant presence in the workforce. Other women stayed at home to look after the baby boomers. Migrant mothers from language backgrounds other than English were often isolated in their suburban homes. Unlike their husbands who could more easily learn on the job, women struggled to learn English. Their school-aged children became their teachers and intermediaries with the wider community.

New Australians and Good Neighbours – assimilation and diversity

Immigrants were called 'New Australian', a term which carried the expectation that they would adopt Australian ways as quickly as possible. 'Old' Australians were, at the same time, encouraged to be 'good neighbours' and help new arrivals blend in.

At the heart of this policy of assimilation was the fear that European settlers would form enclaves, decline to contribute to the wider community, and threaten Australia's social cohesion. Joining the Good Neighbour Movement, a nation-wide organisation founded in 1949, was the most popular way that Australians offered their time and energy to assist in the effort to assimilate huge numbers of new immigrants into the Australian way of life.

Polish winners of the Pelaco Cup, 1952. Image Courtesy of South Australian Migration Museum.


The reality, however, was that most new arrivals from language backgrounds other than English turned for assistance to their own clubs and networks. Such clubs often evolved from informal gatherings in people's homes to purpose-built clubrooms with entertaining, performance, sporting and kitchen facilities. Clubs began to provide welfare assistance, especially for their ageing members.

European immigrants in the 1950s and 60s diversified religious observance, architecture and education in Australia.


Australians taking their oath of citizenship, courtesy of the ABC.

The Australian government encouraged all new settlers to take out Australian citizenship. It believed that the numbers of settlers taking up citizenship indicated the success of the immigration program. The government introduced formal citizenship ceremonies to highlight its civic importance.

The concept of Australian citizenship was new. Until the passing of the 1948 Citizenship Act all Australians were British subjects. However the government banned citizenship for non-Europeans until 1956.

Broadening the base – 1970s: Asia, Africa and the Pacific

From the 1970s there was a shift in the pattern of immigration to Australia. The remnants of the White Australia Policy were abolished and a Universal Migration Policy introduced. The last of the assisted passage schemes ended in 1975, except for refugees. The number of British and European immigrants declined dramatically and arrivals began to come from countries closer to Australia.

High unemployment and slow economic growth, particularly in the 1980s, eroded political and community support for immigration. Supporters of immigration believed that a strong immigrant intake created economic growth through demand for goods and services. Opponents argued that immigrants took jobs from Australians.

End of White Australia

Australia Day citizenship ceremony, Taronga Zoo, Department of Immigration.

In 1973 the Labor government, led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, implemented a Universal Migration Policy which stipulated that anyone could apply to migrate to Australia regardless of race, colour, gender, ethnic origin, religion, or nationality. Immigration agreements with Britain and European countries were abandoned.

This policy did not open up the floodgates. The Whitlam government cut the immigration intake during its years of office because of economic recession. Nor was there an immediate change in the number or location of migration offices around the world. Then from 1979 a points system for entry qualification restricted the number of successful applicants. Within a decade over 100,000 settlers had arrived from Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Skills not people

From the 1970s Australian governments stipulated that potential migrants must have skills or professional expertise required to fill gaps in the Australian work force, or business experience and investment capital that would directly benefit the Australian economy. Family reunion remained the other cornerstone of the migration program. Quota limited the intake, particularly in years of high unemployment or slow economic growth.

Refugees from conflict: Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people

Vietnamese refugee Van Tha Chau and family at Pennington, courtesy of South Australian Migration Museum.

From the 1970s Australian governments confined assistance programs to refugee groups selected for resettlement in Australia under Australia's obligations to the United Nations. Others, though not strictly refugees, have been accepted on special humanitarian grounds.

In a break from previous practice, Australia also accepted non-European refugees. Most of the refugees arriving in the 1970s and 80s came from the war-torn Indo-Chinese countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

At first, Vietnamese refugees came by boat to Australia's northern shores, with the first boats arriving in 1976. They had fled from South Vietnam which after April 1975, had come under the control of the communist government of North Vietnam. Over 50 boats, carrying 2000 refugees, made it to Australia in the late 1970s. They risked treacherous seas, attacks by pirates, starvation and cramped primitive conditions on barely seaworthy vessels. It is not known how many people died at sea in the attempt to reach Australia.

It was in camps in Malaysia and Thailand, crowded with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people, that Australian immigration officers processed most refugees from Indo-China for eventual acceptance into Australia. In 1979 refugees began arriving by air direct from overseas camps. Nearly 80,000 arrived between 1975 and 1985.

Displaced from the Middle East, Afghanistan, South and Central America and Africa

From the 1970s, Australia also accepted refugees from Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan, South and Central America and Africa, most having been displaced from their countries because of internal conflicts and tension, and political, religious and ethnic oppression. Few came direct to Australia, most spending time in other safe countries first.


From the 1970s family reunion, with annual quotas, remained a key element in Australia's immigration program in order to encourage people to settle permanently in Australia.

Seen and heard – social justice and equality of opportunity

Protest agitating for education not detention.

By the mid 1970s overseas-born residents began to demand recognition and that their needs be catered for. Although the Department of Immigration had always taken a role in assisting immigrants to settle in, the focus expanded. Both Commonwealth and state governments devised policies that addressed the specific needs of immigrants, regardless of their origin. These policies had support from both sides of politics and were designed to woo the migrant vote.

Immigrant voices were not the only voices demanding social justice and equality of opportunity. Indigenous Australian campaigned for the return of their traditional lands, for an end to institutional racism, for better health services, housing, and access to education. In 1972 Aboriginal activists erected a tent embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House in Canberra to raise awareness of Aboriginal demands.

At this time, women and people with disabilities also demanded recognition and social justice. In response, governments passed reform legislation, including the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

A network of community services

Lithuanian Youth Choir, 1965, courtesy of South Australian Migration Museum.

An extensive network of government and community-funded community services, combined with conferences, seminars, welfare workers, grant-in-aid workers and other methods, sought to address the specific needs of particular sections of the migrant population. These included refugees, victims of torture and trauma, older persons, women, newly arrived settlers, those from a language background other than English, and youth.

Community clubs became more political in focus. They began to lobby government for funds to run self-help programs such as aged care facilities, language schools for their children and to employ specialist staff for health and welfare programs. They relied largely on the volunteer efforts of members. For more effective liaison most joined 'umbrella' organisations such as Ethnic Communities Councils.

With the development of Migrant Resource Centres and other community-based organisations catering to the needs of increasingly diverse groups, the Good Neighbour Movement became largely redundant, its funding was withdrawn, and most offices closed.

In languages other than English

Afghan Refugee, Akram Azimi is Young Australian of the Year, 2013, courtesy of SBS.

Governments acknowledged that settlers continued to use their own languages in Australia and that the use of community languages actually helped new arrivals to adjust to a new life in Australia.

From 1975, radio stations broadcast programs, local and overseas news, sports and information in community languages – first 2EA in Sydney, 3EA in Melbourne and then across Australia. In 1978 the Australian government established the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a radio and television service to provide programs, films, and local and overseas news in many languages.

A 24-hour Telephone Interpreter Service was established across Australia in 1973.

Many ways of being Australian

Afghan family reunion, courtesy of ABC.

By the late 1970s, migration had changed Australia from an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic society to a culturally diverse one, although the Anglo-Celtic Australian still formed a majority of the population. With a quarter of the population born overseas and another quarter with one or more parents born overseas, the immigration experience was close to home for many Australians.

Migration has created a vibrant and complex society, with many ways of recognising the ties that bind. Most Australians acknowledge their ethnicity. It has become part and parcel of being an Australian. It has become one way that Australians connect with the past, share a sense of belonging with others and shape the pattern of their lives.

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The South Australian Migration Museum is acknowledged in providing access to collection material and images.

Last updated: 27 April 2015

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