Recruiting Immigrants: The First World War and Australian Immigration

Article excerpt

It is often assumed that the relationship between war and immigration is tenuous simply because in times of war, immigration virtually ceases. In Australia's case, both global wars of the twentieth century provided a stimulus to immigration in the following years. More than this, the war years constituted a period of dormancy during which past policies could be re-examined and reformulated. Several studies have already been undertaken on the influence of the second world war on post war immigration schemes.(1) Little detailed work, however, has been published on the direct impact of world war one on policies for immigration to Australia and on population redistribution within the empire.(2)

The experience of the second world war had an important influence on the future direction of Australia's immigration policy. A number of pre-war policies and their underlying philosophies were reinforced, particularly the widely-held perceptions of the `ideal' and the `alien' in immigration policy, the racial hierarchy of preferred immigrants with the British the most favoured and the desirability of settlement on the land. On the other hand, policy changes made immediately prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 were reversed, while others envisaged at that time and which were to have been put into effect when immigration was actively resumed after the war, were disregarded.

It has been a common assumption that world war one interrupted a trend of increasing immigration to Australia. On the contrary, a drastic decline in immigration had already occurred well before the war for a variety of reasons including the state of the economy, a reduced demand for labour and increased shipping fares.(3) Although the outbreak of hostilities brought a necessary cessation to almost all efforts to encourage immigration to Australia, most of the earlier ambitious schemes had already been modified. State governments had been facing severe difficulties for at least eighteen months and the war was seen by some immigration officials as a way out of an embarrassing and costly situation. Possibly as a result of this decline, there was a gradual movement towards greater cooperation between governments than had hitherto been the case in the field of immigration. Until 1921, the encouragement of immigration was in the hands of state governments but there were developments prior to the war which foreshadowed the later movement of the federal government into the field.

Despite the very low level of immigration during the war years, events between 1914 and 1918 were highly significant in changing attitudes to various classes and nationalities of immigrants, stimulating new theories about Australia's future development, and influencing postwar population policy, not only in Australia but also in Great Britain and elsewhere. This article will analyse the nature of the limited immigration which continued after August 1914 and the public response from a society at war. Governments faced particular problems in justifying any immigration during the war years and in dealing with delicate issues such as the arrival of a number of Patagonians in 1915 and the Maltese incident of 1916. It will also examine the conflict between the very strict pre-war health standards for immigrants and the humanitarian considerations in relation to British ex-soldiers towards the end of the war and later. Finally, there will be an assessment of changing attitudes about potential immigrants, particularly towards `ex-enemy aliens', the Japanese and Anglo-Indians, as well as the gradual emergence of a postwar policy.

The operations of the state immigration departments were extremely limited during the war and there was obviously a marked falling off in the number of people wishing, or able, to emigrate, owing to conscription in Europe, government restrictions and the shortages of shipping. Immigration in this period was predominantly British. Most of those who arrived in the first year of the war had been nominated by guarantors in Australia or selected by immigration officials in Britain before August 1914 and had booked their passages some months earlier. …