The Benalla Migrant Camp was in operation from September 1949 until it closed on 8th December 1967.
The former military base at Benalla Airport housed approximately 60,000 European post WW2 migrants from 1949 and 1967. Its 18 years of operation made it one of the longest lasting Australian Migrant Centres. The Benalla camp functioned as a holding centre for Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre near Wodonga. Bonegilla was the original destination point for any non-British New Australian arriving in Australia as part of the Assisted Migration Scheme. From Bonegilla migrants would be sent to Benalla once they were registered and allocated work in the nearby factories, farms or in the orchards of the Goulburn Valley.
Australia’s first Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell initiated Australia’s Assisted Migration Programme to grow Australia’s economy. Migrants who came to Australia under this programme committed themselves to work for two years for a set minimum wage, wherever they were sent.
Often this separated families, with the women and children staying at Benalla and the men being sent away to work.
Benalla's main factories were Latoof and Callil Clothing Factory and Renolds Chains, which employed both men and women. (These factories closed after the camp closed.) Minister Calwell targeted refugees and displaced people from the ‘Baltic Countries’, blond blue-eyed ‘good types’, which might explain why the Benalla Migrant Camp was often referred to as the 'Balt Camp'.
The Benalla camp was specifically suitable for the hard-to-place migrant, single mothers, widows and wives who were separated from their husbands. At any one time about a third of the camp residents were made up of supporting mothers.
Approximately 60 accommodation and service huts were once located on this site. (At full capacity the Benalla camp housed about 500 migrants). The facilities were quickly transformed from RAAF training facility into what was proposed to be ‘short term’ accommodation for migrants from Europe – it included a hospital, a canteen, a theatre/cinema, a shop and a number of huts used by the Department of Education as Benalla Aerodrome School SS 4651 (1949-1963).
The accommodation was at best habitable lacking insulation, heating and most of all, privacy. During the Australian summer, many former residents recall that the walls of the Nissen Huts got so hot, they burned you if you touched them. Migrants did their best to improve conditions by adding homely touches, growing small gardens, lining walls and ceilings with rugs to insulate them.
Whilst the memories of the adults who lived in the camp are often tainted by the shock of war and displacement and the primitive conditions of the camp, many of the children recall their newly found freedom and the safety and community in the camp as one of the best times of their lives.
Not much is left of the Benalla Migrant Camp today. Most of the buildings were demolished in the 1980s, to make way for Cooinda Retirement Village. Nine huts remain, the camp main gates, a well lid, roads and a number of structural features (lamp posts etc.) which were all detailed and included in a State Heritage Listing of the site in May 2016 (VHR H2358).
On 5th December 2018 Benalla Rural City adopted a Conservation Management Plan for the former migrant camp site and has appointed a committee to implement it.
In June 2019 Benalla Rural City (owner of the site) gifted more than half the huts (including the unique school buildings) to groups and clubs with no heritage interests.
The documents below are available in PDF format.
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