A brief history of Villawood and a vision for the future

By Sadie Grant Butler | 16 Sep 15

Villawood Migrant Hostel was established shortly after the end of World War II in order to accommodate assisted migrants from Britain and Europe, including those displaced by the war. The grounds formerly comprised the Leightonfield Munitions Factory, which was replaced by a sea of pre-fabricated, corrugated iron dome structures called “Nissen huts”, with the establishment of the hostel. These basic little structures, each taking about four hours to erect, were the homes of many new migrants who arrived in Australia from 1949 onwards.

Although the huts were located within a compound, the residents were permitted to come and go freely. Children attended the local schools and their parents worked in local businesses, saving their money to leave the hostel and establish new lives, usually within the local community where they were already immersed. The hostel itself was a community, complete with a post office, linen store and childcare centres.

Photographs from that period show children playing cricket, posing in their school uniforms and stringing Christmas decorations from the curved roofs of their huts. A resident of the area at that time recalls strolling into Villawood regularly to play table tennis and visit mates, and another describes Villawood fondly as “a great place to arrive at in 1960”. In 1964 the hostel was home to 1425 residents and it was around this time that The Easybeats were established, which, for those too young to remember, was the Australian “It” band of their day formed by five new migrants from three different countries who called Villawood home.

But of course, photographs do not tell the entire story, and there is a tendency to imbue old times with a warm nostalgic glow that belies the severe realities of life. For those migrating from cold European climes, the Western Sydney sun beating down on those sheds was unbearably hot and humid at times. The conditions were cramped, with multiple, large families sharing small quarters, described by some former residents as putrid and shocking. Hostel resident Patricia Donnelly put it bluntly, “Nothing in the hostels, where most people went, was as it was shown in the brochures. Hostel life was terrible.”

Asylum seekers who arrived by boat from Vietnam in the 1970s were housed with refugees who had already been granted visas. These asylum seekers were not allowed to leave the hostel while they were being processed, but processing was swift and there was no moral question hanging over their heads. There was no suspicion about whether they were “real refugees”. The Government understood why the Vietnamese boat people were fleeing, and why they were doing so as quickly as they could.

In 1992, mandatory detention was introduced. The 1958 Migration Act had allowed for discretionary detention of those who arrived without a visa, and the government had been exploiting this discretion to detain the increasing number of Cambodian refugees arriving since 1989. In 1992 a number of detainees applied for judicial review of the decision to detain them. Pre-empting the result of the case, the Keating Government, with the support of the Coalition, amended the Migration Act to undercut future applications for judicial review on the same grounds.

According to then-immigration minister Gerry Hand, the amendment was intended “only as an interim measure” to contain the number of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese boat arrivals – yet it remains in force more than 23 years later. Hand’s fierce declaration that “a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community” represents the beginning of the misguided conflation of the term “asylum seeker” with the umbrella term “migrant”, which remains to this day in the Australian dialogue. Al Jazeera has recently announced that they will no longer use the term “migrant” where “asylum seeker” or “refugee” is appropriate  we can only hope to see the media take a similar stance here.

“Australia, with its boundless plains to share,
could become a country renowned for its
compassion instead of its cruelty.”

People seem to have trouble imagining an Australia without mandatory detention for boat people, but mandatory detention is relatively new. It is not difficult to imagine a future policy that acknowledges the right of a person to ask for our help, a policy that does not completely strip a human being of their freedom, dignity and hope. Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government dealt with Vietnamese boat people by accepting, housing and processing those who made the journey, whilst simultaneously increasing humanitarian intake in an effort to reduce the numbers making the inarguably dangerous journey.

Australia’s relative geographical isolation means that we are unlikely to ever be at risk of a constant stream of boats, but the number of refugees in the world – 19.5 million at last count and ever increasing – will not decrease simply because we turn our back on them. Increasing humanitarian intake, and directing funds into rescue measures rather than punitive measures, is the way to stop deaths at sea.

For better or for worse, modern Australia is a country founded on immigration of many kinds. Apart from our Indigenous population, the rest of us are descended from persons from elsewhere – convicts, refugees, those seeking employment, better living conditions, sun and sea.

If we strain our imaginations, with the aid of a few sepia photographs, perhaps we can imagine creating the conditions under which human beings who have suffered incredible trauma are be able to recover and flourish. Perhaps we can imagine ridding our country of immigration detention centres and recreating, and improving upon, hostels like the old Villawood Migrant Hostel. Australia, with its boundless plains to share, could become a country renowned for its compassion instead of its cruelty.

Sadie Grant Butler is a philosophy student, writer and activist from Sydney. She tweets sporadically @spadiegb

Feature image: Kate Ausburn/Flickr