Situated in north-east Victoria, the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre was the first and largest of 23 such centres in Australia.
Originally an army camp, the site was converted by the Department of Immigration to provide temporary accommodation and education to new arrivals, and assist them in finding employment and settling into their new home.
From when the centre opened its doors in 1947 to when it closed in 1971, around 320,000 Europeans spent time within its walls.
During that time, more than 350,000 Italian migrants came to Australia, including economic migrants and refugees who had been displaced during World War II.
Many of these Italians passed through Bonegilla on their way to a better life.
Many of them would have also endured the hardships that came with such a journey, including forced family separation, poor standards of care and child malnutrition, which led to organised migrant protests within the camp.
Author of Histories of Controversy: Bonegilla Migrant Centre, Alexandra Dellios, will reveal the centre’s darker history in a presentation hosted by the Co.As.It. Museo Italiano on Wednesday, July 12.
On the evening, Ms Dellios will explore the events and outcomes of the riots in 1952 and 1961, over poor living conditions and unemployment respectively, which occurred at Bonegilla.
The presentation will be accompanied by readings from the play Hotel Bonegilla, to be performed at La Mama Theatre from July 19 - 21, as part of La Mama’s 50th Birthday Mini-Festival.
Tes Lyssiotis originally wrote and directed the play for La Mama in August 1983 with a cast of six, and directed it again in 1997 for the 50th Anniversary of the Bonegilla Reunion Festival, with a cast of 32, most of whom had direct family connections to the migrant camp.
“Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre represents that moment in Australia’s history which reflects what has become the main characteristic of the 21st century: the movement of people between countries,” Ms Lyssiotis explains.
“At its centre is the potent image of the suitcase which helped shape my vision of the play, for inside the suitcase are the dreams and the heart of the migrant.”
The upcoming performance at La Mama Theatre will be directed by Laurence Strangio, who hopes that it serves as a reminder of Australia’s migrant history during what is becoming a tough time for migrants hoping to create a new life within our borders.
“We should learn from the past but we haven’t; we’ve become even more intolerant, inhumane and inhospitable,” Mr Strangio says.
“We accept the multicultural diversity of our society as just a given, and we forget the various people who came here with no real knowledge of what they were getting into and who went through so much.”
Mr Strangio explains that the performance takes on the form of a documentary in which the six actors play different roles from scene to scene so as to show a sweeping history of Bonegilla through the eyes of the cast, from the migrants themselves, to government officials and the general public.
The performance features a stellar cast, including one woman with a strong personal connection to Bonegilla.
Carmelina Di Guglielmo’s parents migrated to Australia from the tiny village of Civitella Messer Raimondo in the province of Chieti, Abruzzo, in the 1950s.
At 25 years of age, her father arrived in 1952 and was sent directly to Bonegilla.
Having served his two-year bond to the government, he then bought a house in Collingwood and sponsored his wife to come over in 1955, and Ms Di Guglielmo was born two years later.
“I feel very connected to the play because of the connection that my father has to Bonegilla and the stories he told me about his stay there,” she says.
The talented actress hopes that the performance will give people an appreciation of what migrants such as her father endured to establish themselves in Australia, and a deeper knowledge of what migrants have contributed to what she refers to as an “Immigration Nation”.
“The massively large body of work that migrants contributed to building Australia is concrete evidence of migrants’ contribution to this country,” she says.
“Bonegilla sent large groups of young men to work on big projects in Australia and they worked hard, often under difficult circumstances.”
While Bonegilla certainly has played an integral role in Victoria’s migration history, it also serves as a strong lesson on the challenges that migrants face when settling in a new and foreign place, something which is still relevant today.