Italy has a camp to 'integrate migrants'. So did Australia


A small city in Italy created immigrant boot camp to address anti-immigrant sentiment, to help integrate new arrivals into the country, and find them jobs. The founders may not have realised Australia had a similar program after World War ll.

Watch ‘Italy’s Migrant Boot Camp’, on SBS OnDemand

Across the globe, anti-immigration sentiment has proved to be - for many years - a powerful political tool.

Italian populist party the League attracts support from across the country by capitalising on voter concerns about uncontrolled migration. Its website has joked that anything south of Rome was Africa.

Migrants who enter the country seeking asylum, have been portrayed by the Italian media and politicians as a drain on resources, and have been linked to drug crime, theft and prostitution.

Abdou Sambou describes the academy as a military camp.

The small city of Bergamo, in Northern Italy, has been trying to deal with this growing anti-immigrant sentiment with an unconventional experiment: The Academy for Integration - Thank You, Bergamo.

The academy has been dubbed a ‘migrant boot camp,’ for its military-style approach to education.

Founded by the local mayor and Christophe Sanchez, the Academy makes a deal with the migrants: in return for their hard work and dedication to their new Italian home, Christophe and his team will help the migrants find full time work. A permanent work contract is key to getting residency in Italy.

Sanchez wants the students “to be grateful for the country that is hosting them.”

Countries worldwide have long been developing strategies to manage people fleeing war-torn territories. The United Nations’ 2951 Refugee Convention was created for European refugees from World War ll to protect their rights.

Christophe Sanchez hopes the Academy is a solution to Italy's toxic politics around immigration.

Australia, too, has a history of these camps.

Eleven million people had survived the Nazi labour and concentration camps - many were unable to return home. Australia agreed to accept a minimum of 12,000 of these refugees each year, in the years that followed the war.

These refugees, along with other migrants, were placed in dozens of reception camps throughout regional parts of the country.

For more than 300,000 post-World-War-ll migrants, the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in north-east Victoria, was their first Australian home.

Doina arrived at Bonegilla as a child.

The reception and training centre was the largest reception centre in Australia following World War ll.

Residents of these camps shared their memories with Dateline.

“Austria in 1949 was a dreadful place,” said Doina Eitler, a Romanian migrant who arrived in Australia as a young girl.

“My mother and father had three children, mum was pregnant again with the fourth and they looked at each other and said there's no future.

“And then Australia opened up doors.”

Doina and her family arrived at the Bonegilla camp, where her family was processed and allocated jobs. It was a converted military barracks, the amenities and settlement services were basic.

“There were military huts… she thought this doesn't look very pleasant. It was very hot in the day and very cold at night,” said Anita Beraldo, an Italian migrant who arrived in Bonegilla at age 14.

During these years, Australia still promoted policies of assimilation. Experts say the government marketed these camps as a place where new migrants would become ‘productive’ citizens - that included learning English.

“We were uncomfortable with the fact that these were non-British people,” explains historian Bruce Pennay.

“In the early years of post war Australia it was making them look and feel as if they were Australian or at least British.”

The mess-hall at Bonegilla migrant camp.
Supplied: Albury Library Museum

Anita’s family, like many others, were happy ‘becoming Australian’. She remembers the English classes, and how comical it was learning English as a 14-year-old.

Eventually assimilation policies shifted to embrace multiculturalism, and the camps closed.

Bonegilla eventually shut down, as the government struggled to find new migrants work in regional Australia.

“By the 60s this weakened into an approach of integration. People keep their cultures and their languages as they move there,” Bruce said.

“I am still Italian and in a way I'm happy - I'm glad - that I didn't go back,” Anita told Dateline.

Bruce believes the migrant camps wouldn’t work today.

“I think we’ve gone past what we had back then which was institutionalising the poor, the sick the mad and the newly arrived.

“We don’t put people in institutions these days, and this was an institution.”

Doina is certain the camp saved lives, including her own family, but believes it wasn’t Bonegilla that made her Australian.

“What I think helped my family become Australian is that we were put into the country with no help, no assistance.

“We were made to stand on our own two feet.”