Migrant hostel #
No one kept count
of all the comings and goings—
arrivals of newcomers
in busloads from the station,
sudden departures from adjoining blocks
that left us wondering
who would be coming next.
each other out instinctively—
like a homing pigeon
circling to get its bearings;
years and name-places
recognised by accents,
partitioned off at night
by memories of hunger and hate.
For over two years
we loved like birds of passage—
always sensing a change
in the weather:
unaware of the season
whose track we would follow.
A barrier at the main gate
sealed off the highway
from our doorstep—
as it rose and fell like a finger
pointed in reprimand or shame;
and daily we passed
underneath or alongside it—
needing its sanction
to pass in and out of lives
that had only begun
or were dying.
Context and background #
Peter Skrzynecki was born in war torn Germany on April 6, 1945, 24 days before Germany surrendered to the Allies. His step-father, Felix Skrzynecki, a displaced Polish migrant living in Germany, met his mother, from the Ukraine shortly after he was born. They lived in Germany for four years and then began a two year migration process that ended in Australia. Here they spent time in a migrant hostel near Parkes before settling in South west Sydney.
Skrzynecki’s poetry is written after the event so it relies on memory and distance to get its objectivity and detachment. The poetry is a mixture of nostalgia and realism, sometimes focused on happy times while also revealing the pain of rejection.
Australia has an ambivalent attitude to migrants. Arriving as boat people in 1788, we soon began to fear other invasions especially “the yellow hordes” (drawn here by the Gold Rush) from neighbouring Asian states resulting in the “exclusive” White Australia Policy in force until Whitlam removed it in 1973. Exploiting a deeply embedded fear of immigrants, politicians and news media arouse strong passions opposing non-British migrants. In mono-cultural Australia we feared different cultures including Eastern European Jewish refugees, southern Italians and Greeks preferring to keep Australia free for eugenic concerns.
Following the attacks on our soil during WWII by Japan, Australia (with a population of only 7 million) realised the need for better defences and a “Populate or Perish” policy developed, so from 1945 to 1978 displaced refugees from Europe were actively encouraged to settle here to help rebuild and strengthen our defences. Only the tireless efforts of Arthur Calwell and Ben Chiefly helped reshape public opinion to accept them.
Migrant hostels, also known as immigration dependants’ holding centres, migrant accommodation, migrant reception or training centres or migrant workers’ hostels, were established after World War II to accommodate displaced persons and assisted migrants. Migrants and their dependents were permitted to remain in the hostels from three to 12 months, and were given training (English classes while they looked for a job) to assist with resettlement. Much of the early accommodation consisted of disused army (Nissan) huts and other converted buildings. Fact sheet 170 – Migrant hostels in New South Wales, 1946–78, Australian Archives
Though they were free ( Migrants needed a work permit to leave the hostels) the hostels were intended to assist their gradual integration into Australian society, many migrants found the centres basic, cold and uninviting. Many cite the lack of privacy, the melee of transient groups, the gravitation towards fellow countrymen and the officiousness of the authorities as unwelcoming. Compared to modern detention centres, the Migrant Hostels were relatively humane.
After 1954 we developed a more humane and welcoming attitude to migrants and from the mid 1960’s Australia shifted from a policy of assimilation to develop into a rich vibrant multi-cultural nation. Most Australians recognise the significant contribution made to a diverse, pluralistic and burgeoning society by a wide range of migrants from all over the world. The flood of Vietnamese “boat people” began arriving in 1976 causing renewed concerns regarding “queue jumpers” and protecting our national sovereignty. It is a credit to the humanitarian empathy of the Fraser Government for assisting their acceptance and gradual integration into Australian society. A joint press conference by Andrew Peacock and Michael McKellar in 1977 focused on not exploiting the assumed fears for political gain.
The early nineties fomented irrational concerns about asylum seekers coming by boat raising alarm bells and creating emotive hysteria about “Border Protection” playing on fear and appealing to the worst in us all. So we began to build mandatory detention centres to “send them a strong message”. From 2001 onwards all politicians have pandered to a deep and ugly xenophobia (fear of foreigners) running through the psyche of the nation by calling them “illegals” despite the fact that only about 5% of asylum seekers arrive by boat with the majority flying in on Jumbos.
Politicians have fostered a National Myth that we are over run by “illegals*”. * By coarsening the language and stoking irrational fears we have harmed and diminished ourselves by becoming desensitised to the plight of others and exacerbated their suffering, spending billions of dollars in condemning them to lifelong trauma for dubious political gain.
Just how do we “induct” new Australians? What support is there to help migrants with housing, employment and accessing social services? Charities, SBS Radio and community groups do some of it, but can and should the government do more? Is anyone thinking about what will ensure the community gets the best value from new arrivals, and vice versa? After all, immigration has been the huge success story of post-war Australia, economically and socially – what do we need to do to keep that going?
Labor affirmed its commitment to multiculturalism in 2011, promising to beef up the Australian Multicultural Council and examine service delivery to new migrants. The findings of that work should spark a new conversation on citizenship, integration and how to ensure multiculturalism doesn’t become the failed experiment some ideologues and opposition MPs believe it has.
If Peter Skrzynecki and the WWII refugees thought the 1950’s Migrant hostels, hostile, how excluded do recent arrivals feel about being detained behind high security razor wire?
Belonging in Migrant hostel
The concept of belonging and rejection are counter balanced in this poem
depicted by the language and images. Family is the great identifier
illustrated by inclusive language of collective possessive pronouns;
*“left us wondering”, We lived like birds of passage”, Whose track we would follow, From our doorstep, And daily we passed”. * Further images of inclusion and bonding are “Nationalities sought each other out instinctively like a homing pigeon”. As part of nature we are drawn to others from our home country and are gregarious like birds such as the “homing pigeon” and later “birds of passage” who continually migrate. There is some sense of cohesion and empathy with other migrants and migratory birds.
Language and images of non acceptance are much more dominant also conveyed by the overall morose or resigned tone. The apathy of “no one kept count” is compounded by the uncertainty caused by the lack of information “that left us wondering” and later “unaware of the season”. The anonymity of “busloads” and “nationalities” suggests a lack of identification. The confusion and bewilderment creates an atmosphere of impotence and helplessness. This lack of control is reinforced by the ending “lives that had only begun Or were dying”.
Powerful language and images of exclusion include: *“Partitioned off at night”, A barrier at the main gate Sealed off the highway” * The comparison of the barrier, *“As it rose and fell like a finger Pointed in reprimand or shame” *is a powerful image of rejection because of its authoritarian menacing implications. * *The cumulative effect of these negative images alienates the migrants reinforcing the idea that they are outsiders, not accepted as part of the wider community.
Reflection moves to the implications of the experience “… of lives/That had only begun/Or were dying.” The most vulnerable are to be pitied.
Using a documentary approach to distil past experience, with an apparently objective tone, Skrzynecki presents a chilling image of the harsh reality of migrant’s initial unwelcoming experiences in a foreign country resulting in issues of alienation and belonging by first generation migrants.