‘A Full Healthy Life’?
Migration & Health in Post-War Australia
Did you, or someone you know, ever moved to a new country?
Between 1945 and 1975 some 3 million migrants and refugees arrived in Australia from Britain and Europe. Chosen to be young, strong and healthy workers, they were expected to rapidly assimilate and ‘become good Australians by adoption’.
This exhibition asks what role health played in this huge social experiment. How did images of a healthy environment in brochures and films shape migrants’ expectations? And how did people navigate a new health system in an unfamiliar place?
The twelve objects featured here reveal individual experiences of negotiating cultural, administrative and linguistic hurdles in order to maintain the health and wellbeing of migrants and their families. Together they tell a story about post-war change, and challenge the rosy picture of a ‘full healthy life’ enjoyed by all.
Finding ‘New Australians’
Australia launched a mass immigration programme after the Second World War to fuel the country’s economy, bolster the population and secure its defences. It was aimed initially at the British, historically the main source of Australia’s settler population, but in order to keep numbers high the programme soon expanded to include migrants and refugees from across Europe. These ‘foreigners’ were, for the first time, viewed by the government as potential citizens.
Who came, and how?
Migrants arrived through a range of different schemes and agreements, including a system of free or assisted passages for UK residents, an assisted passage scheme for allied ex-servicemen, formal migration agreements often involving assisted passage with the UK, Malta, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Yugoslavia, and informal migration agreements with Austria, Greece, Spain, Belgium and others.
An agreement with the International Refugee Organisation enabled the resettlement of displaced persons from Central and Eastern Europe, who were the first non-British people to arrive in large numbers.
The contracts they were required to sign before embarkation bound them to work in any job the government directed them to for their first two years of residence. Similar labour contracts were also included in agreements with Italy, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands and Germany.
This woman and her child were resettled in Australia as part of
the IRO scheme in 1947. NAA: A12111, 1/1947/15/10.
A combination of planned immigration and natural increase saw the Australian population almost double from 7.5 million in 1945 to 13 million in 1975.
The composition of the population has also been transformed. In 1945 90% were born in Australia. Today more than a quarter of the population was born overseas.
Italian canecutters arrive at Cairns aboard the AURELIA, 1956.
NAA: A12111, 1/1956/4/22.
“Australia is one of the healthiest countries in the world partly because of its equable climate and partly because of its efficient health services.”
Know Australia, Department of Immigration July 1948.
Migrants’ expectations of health care in Australia varied greatly depending on where they came from, their past experiences and what information they were able to access. For those managing existing health conditions or expecting children, uncertainty about the costs and availability of medical supplies and expertise influenced decisions about what to bring.
Some came to Australia hoping to find a healthier environment. Posters, pamphlets and films produced by the Department of Immigration and distributed in Britain and Europe advertised Australia as a healthy haven, boasting a warm and temperate climate and plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.
The Australian Government also had expectations about the new arrivals: that they would work hard, and make every effort to fit into the ‘Australian way of life’.
The objects featured here reveal some of these expectations and give an insight into the role health played in the decision to migrate.
“The health was last in their mind until it went, and with it, went security and all the rest.”
This observation was made by Mino Favretto who arrived in Australia from Trieste in 1955. It captures the experience of many post-war migrants to Australia, who arrived young and in good health and set to work building a new life, often in physically demanding jobs that later took a toll on their health.
Some objects featured here give a glimpse of these work experiences. Others reveal the memories of those who migrated as children, and those who worked in medical professions.
Migrants’ health experiences were diverse, reflecting different cultures, ages, genders and health needs. But as these sources suggest, the desire to find practitioners who would listen and understand is a common thread. For Australian authorities, protecting the health of the nation took priority over catering to the health needs of new arrivals.