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Memento : Issue 24
8 MEMENTO News from the National Archives Bonegilla was the first and largest migrant reception centre for migrants and displaced people who came to Australia after the upheaval of the Second World War. From the Steps of Bonegilla, an exhibition from the Albury Regional Museum, describes the centre and what it was like for its inhabitants. The exhibition includes original documents and photographs from our vast immigration collection and the stories of five displaced persons who lived at Bonegilla and now live in Canberra. Paul Öpik recorded the arrival at Bonegilla and queuing at the Bonegilla employment office on his camera. to When 18-year-old Paul Öpik boarded the General Black at Bremerhaven early in 1948 he had been living as a displaced person in Germany for four years. He was one of 75,000 Estonians who fled west when Soviet forces occupied their country in 1944. Hilja Vilumets was another. Like the Öpiks, the Vilumets family took the opportunity of migrating to Australia rather than returning to Soviet-occupied Estonia. 'Our farmhouse was burned down in 1941. The Germans and Russians were fighting each other and we were caught in the crossfire. From the cellar we could hear the bullets hitting the walls and the windows. We managed to get out. Three years later the Russians came again and we had to leave.' -- Hilja Öpik After the Second World War, the Australian government launched a massive immigration program to increase the population for greater national security and economic development. With the assistance of the International Refugee Organisation, 170,000 Europeans displaced by the war migrated to Australia between 1947 and 1954. First they were screened to confirm their refugee status and health. After they were given the status of displaced persons, they were housed in camps in Germany, Italy and Austria awaiting resettlement. The Australian government selected prospective immigrants through its migration offices overseas and provided basic accommodation for them when they arrived in Australia. The first arrivals, including Paul and Hilja, were temporarily housed at Bonegilla, an ex-army camp in Victoria near Albury-Wodonga. 'We never regretted it even for a second. We got away from the displaced persons camp. We were pleased that the Australian government brought us here and gave us a chance for life. We were the first New Australians.' -- Hilja Öpik Assisted migrants to Australia between 1947 and 1954 were required to complete a two-year work contract at the direction of the government. Their employment was organised at migrant reception centres like Bonegilla. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Paul was in northern Queensland cutting cane, along with several other young Estonians. Passage