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From Aliens to Austr(aliens): A look at immigration & internment policies

Paper presented at From Curtin to Coombs: war and peace in Australia seminar, Curtin University of Technology, 25 March 2003

Dr Nonja Peters, Director, Migration, Ethnicity, Refugees & Citizenship Research Unit, Curtin University of Technology


In this paper I isolate the policies and acknowledge the sentiments that most impinged on the shift in status of postwar immigrants from Aliens to Australian citizens and the sense of belonging this should engender. In their publication, Citizenship and the politics of belonging, Stephen Castles & Alastair Davidson (2000:vii) 1 note that the membership of individuals in modern democratic societies is marked by the status of citizenship and that those who belong in a given nation-state:

  • Have documents certifying their membership – generally a certificate of birth or naturalization and an identity card or passport.
  • Possess a wide range of civil, political and social rights and a series of obligations to the community and state; and that
  • The democratic state needs the participation of all its members: everybody is meant to belong.

Ann Mari Jordens claims that ‘a nation’s understanding of itself is revealed by the categories of people it regards as foreign, as alien, as ‘other’. 2 The Macquarie dictionary defines an ‘alien’ as ‘one born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization and is not entitled to the privileges of a citizen.’

The Aborigines and the Chinese on the goldfields were among the first peoples branded aliens by Australian authorities. The anti-Asian attitudes that first manifest on pastoral properties and other places of Chinese indentured employment, evolved on the Goldfields into an intense and escalating xenophobia against Chinese credit-ticket holders who came in their tens of thousands to compete with migrants from many other countries for this precious resource. This racial antagonism had, by the late 1890s, resulted in the passing of restrictive immigration legislation, which was based on the Natal Act 14 of 1897. 3 This was, nonetheless, adopted into WA legislation clean of any allusion to race. However, in contrast to the act, which merely required a migrant to fill out a simple form in any European language, Australian customs officers could make a prospective migrant complete a 50-word dictation test in any European language. 4 Following this, ‘Asiatics’ and ‘Coloureds’ were excluded from the vision of the Australia of the future, a view that came to form the basis for naturalization, citizenship and the franchise, for health, welfare, occupational and foreign policy, diplomacy and defence. 5

Born out of the hybridity of 19th century Western racial theories, the idea for a ‘white Australia’ had by the 1880s not only achieved doctrinal status, it had became the legislative foundation stone and ideological lodestar for the new Australian Federation. Its local origins also lay in the protracted process of Aboriginal dispossession, degradation and demise. When it was passed into law with the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, the rights and privileges of Chinese residents became severely circumscribed. And under the rules for citizenship in the naturalization Act of 1903 provided that applicants could not be natives of Asia, Africa or the Pacific Islands (except NZ). 6

The top-up of 390 000 mainly British settlers between 1905 and 1914, increased the population from four to five million and helped retain the nation’s homogeneity. However, the loss during WWI of 65,000 young Australians fighting for freedom on foreign soil and the un-employability of the survivors engendered considerable antagonism towards aliens, including Germans whose families had lived in SA for over seventy years. 7 This animosity prompted the amendment to the Naturalisation Act in 1917; henceforth no Certificate of Naturalisation would be issued unless applicants had first renounced their own nationality, had advertised their intention of becoming naturalized; and could read and write English.

Anxiety, associated with war looming in Europe, triggered further changes. In 1939 the national security -Alien Control- Regulations came to define an Alien not a British subject within the meaning of the Nationality Act 1920-1936; and an alien was not entitled ‘to all the political and other rights, powers and privileges to which a natural-born British subject was entitled’ including the right to purchase property. Moreover, purchasing naturalization papers in a magistrate’s court, was also no longer enough because the regulations now stated that even ‘naturalised British subjects’ could be treated as aliens. 8 Additional changes to the national Security Act, No.15, invoked on 9 September 1939 (amended 21 June 1940) gave the Australian Government the right to prescribe ‘any action to be taken – by or with respect – to alien enemies, or persons having enemy associations or connections’. 9

Whilst it is possible to appreciate the regulation’s concern that enemy agents should not own a radio transmitter or go near a military installation, it is difficult to comprehend how revoking the rights of fishermen and market-gardeners designated as being of ‘enemy alien origin’ and then interning them, including those who had been naturalised, could result in anything other than a steep decline in the fish cannery and tomato industry in rural and urban Australia. 10 Following the amendment Australian authorities indiscriminately rounded-up, for internment, Australian residents and citizens of Italian, German and Japanese descent and labeled them enemy aliens – purely on the grounds of ethnicity and perceived disloyalty. Internment activity intensified during periods of invasion such as that perpetrated by Japan in 1941 and 1942. 11

Rules applied to internees differed from those governing prisoners of war whose fate was linked to the Geneva Convention. Internees were civilians whose place of birth or political credo were deemed potentially dangerous to national security, though how the Vienna Boys Choir and members of Wirth’s Circus came to be considered as potentially dangerous to the nation, remains a mystery. 12 It appears that the only safeguard of the rights of the individual during Australia’s period of government by regulation was the commitment by Australians in authority to democratic principles. 13 However, Italians who appealed against their interment soon found, in contrast to civilian law, that they had neither the right of habeas corpus, nor to any presumption of innocence, thus they were deemed guilty until proven innocent. 14 Neither were the concerns for justice expressed through public opinion sufficiently developed to protect the rights of these citizens, and their loss of liberty generated no outcry.

As the external threat to Australia’s security passed and manpower needs became more pressing, conscription into labour units came to replace internment as a means of controlling Italian internees. The administration of internment was subsequently removed from the Minister for the Army and placed in the Attorney-General’s office until it came to an end in 1944 (Bosworth 1997:210)

Another outcome of the bombing of Darwin and Broome was Prime Minister John Curtin’s address to the nation in December 1943 linking Australia’s security to an increase in population – from seven to twenty million – by the beginning of the 21st century. It also motivated him to reiterate his commitment to a ‘White Australia’: ‘our determination [is] that this country shall remain for ever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish a British-owned colony.’ A commitment supported by Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, when he revived Billy Hughes’ 1937 slogan ‘populate or perish’ to introduce the mass migration program. 15

The first ships carrying newcomers under the encouraged mass-assisted and recruited migration schemes from Eastern, Central and Western Europe, the Baltic States and Britain, arrived in WA in September 1947. The Displaced Persons and voluntary migrants they carried would, the Australian public were told, arrest further population decline, help overcome the massive labour shortages inhibiting economic growth, and increase security.

The newcomer’s settlement was governed by the 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act, which defined as alien ‘a person who does not have the status of a British subject; is not an Irish citizen or protected person’. Before the Act, people living in Australia were either British subjects or ‘aliens’. British subjects living in Australia permanently were automatically granted Australian citizenship, and newly arrived British migrants could become naturalised after 12 months (or upon proof that they had served in a British unit during the war). Chifley became the first Australian citizen on Australia day 1949. In contrast, Europeans had to wait five years for the same privilege and file a ‘Declaration of Intention to become an Australian Citizen’ two years before their naturalisation could take place. Under the Aliens Act 1947 ‘aliens’ had also to register and notify authorities when they changed their name or moved to a new address or occupation. 16

The ‘reception on arrival’ of my father Jan Peters, who left the Netherlands under the Allied Servicemen’s Scheme on the MS Volendam on 14 December 1948, was determined by these Acts, as was that of my mother, brother and me who arrived eight months later on the MS Ugolino Vivaldi, and that of our DP friends and other migrants. The cramped housing, bomb-devastated landscapes, severe rationing, lack of employment and the Cold War we had left behind, dimmed in significance when we found ourselves brutally referred to as alien, called New Austr(aliens) and treated as ‘other’.

Such feelings were exacerbated by homesickness, unfamiliar foods and the primitive conditions in the military camps and sub-standard dwellings in which we were housed. Moreover we were subjected to labels such as Balt, Reffo, Dago, Jid, Spag or Wog, not to mention the more inflammatory Kraut by hostile Australians, who despite having lost sons on foreign soil, had not been given a voice when it came to deciding on the composition of this mass migration influx after the war. And yet, simultaneously, it was expected that we would rapidly assimilate – which meant renounce our cultures and languages and progress quickly and smoothly to full Australian citizenship as devised by the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948.

Inner city districts in host countries have acquired at various times such epithets as ‘little Italy, ‘little Athens’, ‘little Saigon’ or China town depending upon the culture that dominates a particular historical timeslot. Rarely, if ever, have historians applied a similar nomenclature to a nation state. Yet I propose that settlers arriving in Australia from the 1940s to the 1970s entered the Indian-Pacific’s ‘Little Britain’. Its inhabitants were predominately of British ethnic origin and its institutions had been fashioned along English lines, traditions, mores, and values. 17 All policy was designed to maintain the British character of Australia.

Assimilation meant abandoning all characteristics that made non-English individuals visible in a crowd. This included the public use of languages other than standard English and the wearing of unusual clothing. These expectations were clearly spelled out in welcome material. In reality, however, as Jupp (1991:98) also notes, few could reach these high expectations, including British subjects with strong regional accents. Europeans, however, could not conform in any dimension. If they could not speak English they were expected to remain silent in public. If they attempted to communicate with a strong accent they were frequently ridiculed. If they wore the clothes they brought from European camps or carried brief cases, they were immediately identifiable as ‘reffos’. Although there were no laws requiring conformity, Australian society had strongly developed and often rigid notions of what was acceptable and what was not. The task of the government was to develop policies and attitudes that would not disturb those notions while at the same time extending to the ‘New Australians’ a sufficient welcome to prevent their total alienation from the society which they were urged to join. Consequently, migrant children, desperate to regain a sense of belonging and identity, could be forgiven for choosing to construct an identity more akin to a British than Australian persona. Sjannie, whose chosen metamorphosis proceeded along British lines, recalls:

“I know everything about England. I know almost nothing about Holland. When I was a child I used to listen to BBC programs to pick up the better spoken language. I had noticed that it was the middle class English who were the most accepted.” 18

Being labeled as ‘inferior class’ (compared to the ruling class) or ‘different’ by an ethnic family by virtue of ‘a foreign education and vision’, though less frequently acknowledged, often engendered an experience of alienation akin to that imposed by xenophobic or racist taunts. Many migrant children, denied the ‘safe haven’ a family usually provides, lapsed into mental illness.

Creating a new identity, as Stephen Hall has noted, is not only an extremely complex task, ‘never singular but multiple, and for non English speaking background (NESB) migrants, frequently constructed across different languages, intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions’. 19 This manifest in my family, for example, in the older children opting to appear more Australian by ingesting the Aussie icons – Vegemite, Weeties and pumpkin – whereas our parent’s erred on the side of the United Kingdom by serving-up British style fish and chips in our Toodyay country café, instead of the Dutch-style patate frits in a paper cone smothered with mayonnaise, which we loved. These dynamics set up all manner of contradictions within the family, some of which were played out in the wider citizenship arena.

Among most Western Europeans the decision to become Australian citizens was most often made for pragmatic reasons: to gain a license for a post office or liquor store; to escape the embarrassment of having to register as aliens; to get a permanent job in the government or to avoid the pressure exerted on migrants by Australians to become citizens. Migrants complied because they perceived any hesitancy on their part would be seen as hostile and ungrateful, a rejection of the Australian way of life.

Migrants prepared to undergo naturalization nonetheless complained of feeling ‘stripped of any identity’ by the requirement to hand in their current passport weeks before the ceremony takes place. This feeling was exacerbated, until the 1990s, by the Government’s insistence they pledge to ‘forsake all other allegiances’ and pledge allegiance to the British Queen – at the very least an act of disloyalty to their genealogies for dubious benefits (in the 1960s, no equal pay, superannuation or permanency). Changes to the citizenship ceremony since the advent of multiculturalism have made the decision to become naturalised less daunting. Migrants now make a pledge of commitment as Citizens of Australia, which reads:

From this time forward, under God,* I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey. 20

* A candidate can choose to make the pledge with or without these words.

The following sentiment was common among the Dutch women I interviewed. ‘Naturalisation is just a piece of paper, it did not change us, – on the outside we were Aussies but on the inside we were still Dutch. You can’t escape your early years, your “Dutchness”, it is all you know.’ 21

In conclusion, fifty years on, I can say with conviction that:

  • Without the continual immigration over the last two centuries the modern urbanized affluent society of today could not have been created.
  • We were also successful in reaching Prime Minister Curtin’s target population of 20 million – and almost on cue.
  • In March 2002 we officially welcomed the six millionth post-war migrant – a Filipina information technologist.

However, these statements must be seen in their full context:

  • Although Australia has more overseas born than most Western societies, it is not one of the most multicultural societies:
    * Between 1788 and 1996 Britons dominated intakes.
    * Until 1960, 50 per cent of intakes were British.
    * Between 1949 and 2002, 32 per cent were British.
    * Since the abandonement of White Australia in 1973, Britain and NZ continue to provide the greatest intakes but our other major source countries have shifted from Europe to the Asia Pacific, Middle East and South America.
  • Neither can we be entirely self-congratulatory on the front of migrant resettlement services, for despite enormous improvements compared to the first 25 postwar years, these remain notoriously under-resourced and vulnerable to cut backs, and this inhibits their capacity to build-in the flexibility needed to deal with the constant changes in socio-economic, cultural and class background of newcomers from ever-changing source countries.
  • The war with Iraq should also challenge Australians to take the time to ensure that the current naturalization and citizenship act contains the necessary provisions to guard against the internment of naturalised Australian citizens; and finally,
  • We should ensure that newcomers are given maximum support to achieve a robust sense of belonging to Australian society by increasing migrants’ access and equity to services and addressing all forms of discrimination and prejudice in the workplace, school and society. One way a sympathetic attitude can be cultured that ensures this happens is by the systematic recording of migrant communities’ histories and by acknowledging their contribution to the socio-cultural and economic development of their new home.


1. Stephen Castles & Alastair Davidson, Citizenship and the politics of belonging, 2000.

2. Ann-Mari.Jordens, Redefining Australians:Immigration, Citizenship and National Identity, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney: 1995.

3. J.Jupp, From White Australia to Woomera, Cambridge University press, London: 2002.

4. Australia and Immigration 1788 to 1988, DILGEA, Canberra: AGPS, 1988,p.18. It was passed in NSW & Tasmania 1898; NZ in 1899; and the Commonwealth in 1901. During 1902-3, 759 prospective immigrants failed the dictation test and 46 passed. In 1904, six passed. The test was abandoned in 1958.

5. Ibid, p.19.

6. Ibid, p.23.

7. Ibid, p.25.

8. I.L. O’Brien, The Internment of Australian born and Naturalized British Subjects of Italian Origin, in Bosworth, R. & Ugolini, R. (eds) War Internment and Mass Migration: The Italo-Australian Experience 1940-1990. Rome: Gruppo Editoriale Internationale. 1992. p.90.

9. M.Bosworth, Internment, In Gregory, J. (ed.) On the Homefront : Western Australia and World War Two. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press. 1996, p.200.

10. Bosworth, p.209.

11. Ibid, p.201; O’Brien, p.97.

12. Bosworth, p.203.

13. O’Brien, p.104.

14. Bosworth, p.207.

15. Jupp, p.11.

16. DILGEA, 1988.

17. DILGEA Fact Sheet 30, states that in 1900 Australians were predominantly Anglo-Celtic however, by 1995 the population comprised a mix of 54 per cent Anglo-Celtic, 19 per cent other European and 4.5 per cent Asian.

18. J. P. The province of Friesland in the Netherlands is akin to Wales in the United Kingdom. It has a separate language and culture to the rest of the Netherlands.

19. S. Hall, ‘The Real Me: Postmodernism and the Question of Identity’, ICA Documents 6, London, 1987.

20. Post Migration, No. 99, June 1995, p.3.

21. N.Peters, ‘Just a Piece of Paper: Dutch Women in WA’ Studies in Western Australian History August 2000.