Situated near Wodonga, in north-east Victoria, Bonegilla was the first and largest of 23 such centres across Australia.
Originally an army base, the site was converted by the Department of Immigration for the purpose of accommodating and training migrants who arrived during the post-WWII immigration boom, and assisting them to find work.
The camp opened in 1947 and, between then and its closure in 1971, it housed over 300,000 European displaced people and migrants hoping to start a new life in Australia.
In fact, it’s estimated that one in 20 Australians is a descendant of migrants who spent a stint at Bonegilla.
During the years in which Bonegilla operated, over 350,000 Italian migrants came to Australia, about 42,000 of them under the Assisted Passage Scheme signed by the two governments.
Alongside these economic migrants escaping poverty compounded by the effects of the war, several thousand Italian refugees came to Australia during that time, displaced from areas annexed by Yugoslavia after the war.
Many of these migrants and refugees transited through Bonegilla.
The camp became a temporary “home” for those who passed through its doors, and life carried on as normally as possible, with weddings, funerals and other events taking place within its walls.
It was made up of 24 blocks and had its own churches, banks, sporting fields, cinema, hospital, police station and railway platform.
Not everybody who stayed at Bonegilla has pleasant memories of their experience and, safe to say, many couldn’t wait to leave its confines.
For example, accounts of some former residents tell of forced family separation, poverty, malnutrition and unrest.
In fact, disgruntled migrants - many of them Italian - staged protests about unemployment, food and living conditions in 1952 and 1961, creating chaos and clashing with police.
The protesters posted signs reading “We want work or back to Europe” and “Bonegilla camp without hope”.
These two events shamed Australian authorities and resulted in a review of settlement policies.
In saying that, there are also many migrants who recall a more positive experience at Bonegilla.
Angelo Marcuccio left Rome, where he had lived for the past 11 years, and arrived at Bonegilla in March 1966, at the age of 29.
Mr Marcuccio only spent three weeks at the camp, before he was transferred to South Melbourne where he found accommodation and work.
During his short stint at Bonegilla, Mr Marcuccio managed to adapt and fit in to the unfamiliar lifestyle quite easily.
Though he recalls missing the Italian cuisine, he says he made friends with the camp’s chef and gave him some cooking tips straight from the Belpaese.
Mr Marcuccio explains that he never speaks negatively about Bonegilla, and says he is grateful for the assistance and the start to his new life in Australia.
Though Bonegilla represents different things to different people, it’s universally recognised as a symbol of post-war migration which transformed Australia’s economy, society and culture.
To commemorate the significance of this site, Bonegilla Migrant Experience (situated at the former Bonegilla Migrant Training and Reception Centre) will host a week-long celebration for the camp’s 70th anniversary, held right where many of our ancestors once walked.
Running from November 13 to 19, the event will kick off at Bonegilla Migrant Experience with tours and exhibitions, followed by the official anniversary celebration to be held on Saturday, November 18.
Live music and theatre performances will take place throughout the week, along with an author talk, food, market stalls and more.
Visitors can begin by exploring the site with a guided tour, discovering Bonegilla’s Block 19, the camp’s last remaining original block.
They can also browse the Recreation Hut exhibition, which features an insight into recreational activities at Block 19 and shares the life stories of two former residents, Wanda Skowronska and Italo-Australian politician (and one of the organisers of the 1952 protest), Giovanni Sgro.
Wodonga’s HotHouse Theatre will celebrate the occasion with performances of Tes Lyssiotis’ 1983 play, Hotel Bonegilla, from November 16 to 18.
Across the border in Albury, visitors can also view a collection of objects owned by former residents of Bonegilla, including items people brought from their homeland to give them comfort such as photographs, domestic appliances, children’s toys, books and clothing.
The main event on Saturday, November 18, is an opportunity for people to become immersed in the sights, sounds, flavours and surrounds of Bonegilla, 70 years on.
Albury Library Museum staff, who are custodians of the Bonegilla Collection, will also be attending the event on Saturday to provide people advice on how to preserve family objects and pictures.
On the Sunday, people are invited to find their place on a communal dining table at Bonegilla, just like the former residents did, and enjoy a traditional Aussie Sunday Roast for lunch, accompanied by authentic European entertainment.
“Wodonga Council is proud to support such an important national heritage site, and help celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre,” Wodonga Council’s Mayor, Cr Anna Speedie, said.
“Our community has a long association with the people of the Bonegilla Migrant Camp. Many former residents still live and work in Wodonga today, and have raised their families here.
"I greatly admire the courage and strength of the people who made the long journey to Bonegilla for a better life, and hope to see many of them return to the region for the celebrations this November.”
To see all the details of these events and more, find the full event program here.