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Migrant Hostels

Temporary accommodation has been provided for newly arrived immigrants since Melbourne's earliest days. Usually government-sponsored, such facilities have been particularly important at times of increased migration.

In the 1840s when one-third of the over 90 000 arrivals in Port Phillip were assisted immigrants, a canvas town on the south side of the Yarra River at times housed up to 2000 people in tents provided by the Commissariat Store. This was followed by the creation of government Immigration Barracks (1848) and Barracks for Orphan Emigrants (1849) in the Government Block at the corner of Spencer and Collins streets. The austerity of the buildings reflected government determination to discourage dependence on charity, and authorities insisted buildings, consisting of dormitories segregated by sex, be temporary. Regulations were strict and most immigrants remained only for short periods, but illness and unemployment forced some to stay longer.

The 1850s gold rush accentuated the accommodation crisis. Continental Europeans and Chinese tended to rely on the reception provided by compatriots and community organisations, but in 1852 the government opened barracks for British immigrants at Princes Bridge and in a converted abattoir on Batmans Hill, and aided the construction of an Immigrants' Home in South Yarra and a Wesleyan House in Carlton. The Family Colonisation Loan Society also provided accommodation. Relatively expensive and strictly supervised, these institutions, which provided basic facilities, closed later in the 1850s as the crisis eased.

The decrease in assisted migration reduced demand for reception facilities in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The reintroduction of assisted immigration with the push for closer settlement in the years immediately prior to World War I prompted the government and other interested parties to rent temporary accommodation, but it was only after World War II that hostels again assumed an important role in housing assisted immigrants.

With mass migration and an acute housing shortage, Melbourne hostels provided accommodation for displaced persons and assisted northern European and British migrants (southern Europeans tended to stay with friends in overcrowded inner-city homes or boarding houses). In general, British migrants were not placed in the same hostels as Europeans. Controlled by the Commonwealth Department of Labour and National Service, and managed from 1951 by Commonwealth Hostels Ltd, Melbourne's migrant hostels were mostly Nissen and Quonset huts, prototype buildings, army huts or converted wool stores built in the 1940s. Through the 1950s and 1960s they provided accommodation for between 500 and 1500 residents, with a maximum stay of twelve months. Located in industrial or underdeveloped outer suburbs - Altona, Broadmeadows, Brooklyn, Fishermans Bend, Holmesglen, Maribyrnong, Nunawading and Preston - their plainly furnished rooms, communal washing and eating facilities provided little privacy. With rent frequently amounting to 80% of a migrant's income, protests, including a number of rental 'strikes', were frequent. Few improvements were made, however, until the mid-1960s, the Commonwealth having claimed that State health and pricing regulations were not applicable to their properties.

Many of these hostels were closed in the 1960s. Those that remained were upgraded, with a new reception centre built at Springvale in 1970. Increasingly these centres provided accommodation and services for refugees, with the four hostels still operating in 1980 - Altona, Maribyrnong, Nunawading and Springvale - housing approximately 3000 refugees, predominantly Indo-Chinese. Since the 1980s the government has more frequently used flats that families can rent for a limited period. Many of the remaining hostels were converted for other accommodation purposes or became non-residential migrant services centres. The Maribyrnong Detention Centre, adjacent to the site of the former Maribyrnong hostel, provides a holding centre for asylum seekers awaiting visas or deportation.

Sara Wills