It was the coldest, wettest July in 60 years and inside the Spartan accommodation blocks at Bonegilla migrant camp in northern Victoria two thousand young and frustrated Italian migrants were going crazy. Leaving behind girlfriends, wives and families they had set sail for a distant land only to find that the jobs they were promised before leaving Italy had failed to materialise.

“We used to fight like buggery among ourselves for nothing because we didn’t know what to do,” recalls Giovanni Sgro, who arrived in the former army camp in the autumn of 1952 as a 21-year old migrant from Calabria in southern Italy.

Sgro had been sent to Australia to work by his father who forged his son’s signature on the form requesting an assisted passage. Under the scheme, young Italian migrants were to be given work within two weeks of arrival. Instead, thousands found themselves waiting for months with no sign of employment.

“The politicians didn’t come there, the government didn’t come there, and we were desperate,” says Sgro. “We used to fight among ourselves for little things, I mean the way you wash yourself and the dirt and this and that and the other, just the desperation of thousands of young people there, from 18 to 25. I mean that was a terrible thing.”

In July 1952, violence broke out as Sgro and several other inmates led a protest march on the camp’s administration office to demand that the government either provide jobs or send them back home.

“We just started to burn the place and broke windows. We just wanted somebody to take notice of us. Because we were forgotten people,” says Sgro, now aged in his 80s. “That’s how we felt. We felt like forgotten people. Just left there to rot, And if it wasn’t for that demonstration I think I would have spent not three months, but six months or nine months. Who knows how long I would be there?”

According to Sgro and other eyewitnesses, a squadron of armoured cars and troops from the nearby Bandiana army camp were sent to back up local police and security guards trying to quell the riot.

“Desperation is what drove us to organise that big demonstration. When we marched towards the administration office and when we got there, there were over 200 soldiers and four tanks with machine guns, to gun us down,” recalls Sgro. “We nearly shit ourselves, excuse me the expression. Because I mean we didn’t know what they were going to do. I think they would shoot us if we went further. And that was the first time I saw the military ready to shoot at the ordinary private people. I was shocked.”

Many thousands of migrants and refugees were for decades placed on a secret list for potential detention or other restrictions during peacetime because of their known or suspected political beliefs.

Immigration Minister Harold Holt would later deny troops had actually been deployed, saying instead that the Bandiana Army camp had been asked to place soldiers on stand-by in case of trouble on the day. But he was unable to deny the underlying grievances of the migrants. Within a few weeks the government instituted an emergency work program to get ‘troublemakers’ like Sgro out of the camp.

The 1952 riot at Bonegilla camp was by far the most serious incident involving unrest among new arrivals in Australia since the country launched a mass immigration program after World War Two. It caused panic at the highest levels of government, prompting a flurry of frantic activity involving the departments of Prime Minister, Immigration, Treasury, Labour and National Service, and External Affairs.

It would establish Australia’s biggest camp for new migrants as a centre for unrest and activism.

For newly-arrived migrants like Sgro, who would continue to speak out about the rights of workers and migrants, it would also mean becoming an “Unwanted Australian”.

A major investigation by SBS has found a deliberate pattern of official retaliatory measures against migrants like Sgro because of their political beliefs – either involvement with suspected left-wing migrant and community groups, or a known or assumed connection with the Communist Party of Australia, even though it was a legal entity.

Besides denial of citizenship and its associated rights – often for decades – other effects have included job losses, inability to travel outside Australia even during family emergencies, relationship break-ups, family disputes, and social exclusion or ostracisation.

And many thousands of migrants and refugees were for decades placed on a secret list for potential detention or other restrictions during peacetime because of their known or suspected political beliefs.

The investigation into the “Unwanted Australians”, based on previously classified material held by the National Archives of Australia, has found that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, state police special branches, and Immigration Department officials subjected migrants, refugees and often whole groups to a system of surveillance that included an extensive network of paid and unpaid informants within migrant communities.

The declassified files reveal that groups of migrants were treated as potential threats to Australia’s national security from the very beginning of the post-war migration program, which coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the Cold War.

Phones were tapped, social gatherings recorded and photographed, mail censored and bank account transactions inspected. Even magazine and newspaper reading habits were monitored and manipulated. The files also show that Australia shared information with foreign governments such as Greece and Italy on migrants with known or suspected Communist links.
None of the once secret material mentions any official concerns about any criminal behaviour. Objections were purely on the basis of the political beliefs of individuals.

Australia’s post-war migration program is touted as one of the nation’s great success stories. Waves of men and women arrived in Australia fleeing poverty and persecution in post-war Europe with more than 300,000 passing through Bonegilla alone. They came as sugar cane cutters, as carpenters, as factory workers and labourers.

In the eyes of some officials, these men and women brought with them dangerous ideas that threatened to upset the fragile social fabric and security of what had been a predominantly Anglo-Saxon nation.

But those regarded with official suspicion were Greeks like George Zangalis who had just turned 19 when he arrived in Melbourne in February 1950, a few months after the end of the civil war that had left his homeland in ruins; Cypriots such as Jimmi Anastassiou who served with the Royal Navy during World War Two; and former Chinese seaman Boon Juat Lee, who served in both the Australian and US armies in Australia in WW2.

Most of the “Unwanted Australians” were men – but there were women, too, like Egyptian-born Greek Stella Poulos, who found herself the single parent of a young child when her first marriage fell apart soon after she arrived in Sydney in 1953.

They and others like them helped build a prosperous, multicultural Australia, believing their host country would be grateful for their sacrifices and services. But in the eyes of some officials, these same men and women brought with them dangerous ideas that threatened to upset the fragile social fabric and security of what had been a predominantly Anglo-Saxon nation.

Many of these “Unwanted Australians” went on a secret index of migrants that contained thousands of names and was maintained for more than 20 years. Those on the list – who faced potential internment or other restrictions should an emergency arise – included many migrants and refugees lured to Australia by promises of a new life where their democratic rights would be upheld. The Special Alien Index, as it came to be known, was maintained well into the 1970s. It was so vast—at its peak it contained over 16,500 names—it strained the resources of the Immigration Department and led to tension between ASIO and senior Immigration figures.

The financial and emotional costs of being under official suspicion were high.

Sgro’s decision to join the Communist Party of Australia in 1954, which he says he left four years later, would mean having to wait more than 20 years for citizenship and cancelling a trip to go and visit his dying mother in Italy because he couldn’t get a re-entry permit.

Leading the charge against these unwanted influences was Colonel Charles Spry, the staunchly anti-Communist, fifth-generation soldier and former head of Australian Military Intelligence Spry was recruited by Prime Minister Robert Menzies as director-general of ASIO in 1950. Abrasive and obsessive, Spry ordered ASIO to compile thousands of files based on rumour and innuendo that could not be challenged but were used to damage reputations.

For Spry the Bonegilla riot in 1952 confirmed his worst fears about Communist sympathisers exploiting discontent to infiltrate migrant communities. A few weeks after the riot, the acting secretary of the Immigration Department, A. L. Nutt appealed to the ASIO chief to investigate further trouble. Nutt drew Spry’s attention to Italian-language leaflets being distributed in the camp by the CPA. Based on what Nutt called a “rough translation”, the leaflets told the Italians to demand immediate employment, or repatriation with reimbursement for any expenses.

ASIO was, I think, even slightly a rogue organisation which conceived its role in those days to be to pursue the anti-Communist cause with a zealotry which was somewhat excessive.

ASIO believed the CPA, working with the left-wing Italian community group Italia Libera, had been involved in the Bonegilla unrest. The spy agency’s Victorian office wanted to investigate the rumour about the Italian Communist agents by trying to obtain the names of any Italians who had recently returned to Italy. Because of the sensitivity of the request it was suggested that Victorian or NSW state police, rather than ASIO, request the names from the Italian government representatives in Australia.

"ASIO was, I think, even slightly a rogue organisation which conceived its role in those days to be to pursue the anti-Communist cause with a zealotry which was somewhat excessive,” says lawyer Ian Cunliffe, who worked on the staff of the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security in the 1970s, which looked back on how ASIO had operated since it began in 1949.

“There weren’t appropriate checks and balances on what it did and to some extent, I think, during the long period of conservative government in Australia, up until 1972 from 1949, ASIO tended to see its role as being to support the government of the day rather than properly to carry out its charter, which was to protect Australia against real threats to the security and wellbeing of Australia.”

Spry disregarded the Attorney General’s preference for an individual approach to determine who should qualify for inclusion on the Special Alien Index, as well as the Solicitor General’s concerns about the vagueness of some of the criteria being used. At his insistence all residents who held passports issued by Communist countries were regarded as potential enemies as were stateless people whose original nationality ASIO was able to determine as being from behind the Iron Curtain. A third group of potential internees — known for the lifetime of the Index as Category “C” — were migrants who’d arrived from non-Communist states and who’d not yet become citizens, but were recorded adversely by ASIO. Most belonged to the political left and included trade unionists, suspected Communists, their apparent associates, and activists for various causes. They were the “Unwanted Australians”.

According to one ASIO document prepared in 1951 there were about 50,000 “potential enemy aliens” living in NSW alone.

For more than three decades, any individual suspected of being associated with a left-wing migrant or community organisation, or the CPA or any affiliated group, or even just related activities, could be subject to secret surveillance – and potentially a range of life-changing consequences.

Despite efforts to stop suspected Communists from migrating in the first place, many thousands of migrants were listed as potential security risks after their arrival merely because they were thought to have left-wing leanings. Groups with suspected Communist or left-leaning members targeted for ASIO attention included the Polish Associations in several states; the Chinese Youth League of Australia; and the Macedonian People’s League of Australia. According to one ASIO document prepared in 1951 there were about 50,000 “potential enemy aliens” living in NSW alone.

The denial of citizenship and other official measures were seen by some of the “Unwanted Australians” not just as a response to their political leanings, but also as an attempt to curb their activism. Some were at the forefront in battles for better treatment of migrants—particularly improved working conditions. Others took part in rallies against such issues as military rule in Greece and self-determination for Cyprus.

It wasn’t until 1958, that Sgro began to understand the consequences of ASIO’s reach. When news came that his mother was ill, Sgro applied for a re-entry permit so he could return to Australia after visiting her back in Italy. His travel agent had assured him that this would be routine, but weeks later, when the day arrived for his ship to sail, still no permit had been granted.

Unknown to Sgro, Immigration Department Secretary Tasman Hayes had advised his minister Alexander Downer that he was single, had no assets or ties with Australia, and the “security objection” against him raised by ASIO was “a strong one”.

The day after the ship he had meant to board had sailed, Sgro approached his local federal member Gordon Bryant. The Labor MP took the matter up with Downer who responded confidentially that Sgro’s record was “quite a serious one and it is felt that if he left Australia, it would be to the country's advantage if he did not return”.

After further lobbying from Bryant, Downer finally relented, and in 1959 Sgro was given a re-entry permit valid for just three months, forcing him to take the more expensive but faster option of travelling by plane to make sure he was back in time. On his return, Sgro renewed his campaign for citizenship with Bryant’s continued support but had to wait until 1973, after the election of a Labor government, for it to be granted. Six years later he was elected as a Labor Party member of the Victorian Legislative Council.

George Zangalis’ activities as a CPA member would see him branded by ASIO as “a menace to society”. Shortly after arriving in Australia in 1950 Zangalis started working on the assembly line at General Motors Holden. There he met a Greek Cypriot migrant who introduced him to the Democritus League, a Greek workers’ club. Many of its members had Communist or left-wing leanings. Their ways of looking at the world so appealed to the young Greek that within three months he was on the club’s committee of management.

With all the major parties supporting the White Australia policy, Zangalis saw the CPA as the only party willing to speak up against racism and discrimination against migrants. Zangalis joined the CPA a month before the High Court of Australia in March 1951, ruled that legislation introduced by the new Menzies government to ban the party was unconstitutional. Menzies then lost a bid to ban the CPA at a referendum later that year.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when the Australian government passed the laws to ban the Communist Party, a legal party then,” recalls Zangalis who still presents a weekly Greek language program on Melbourne ethnic community radio station, 3ZZZ. “An appeal to the High Court rejected the legislation as being unconstitutional. I thought this is funny, the government decides to ban a party and the court says you can’t do it. Because in Greece there was no such thing as the courts above the parliament, or government for that matter.”

Every Greek citizen (was) categorised under different levels of “loyalty” according to whether they were known or suspected to have ever held leftist views.

In 1953, ASIO’s Victorian Director, H. C. Wright, suggested that Zangalis be deported back to Greece as an “undesirable alien”. Fortunately for Zangalis, this advice was not accepted. Had he been deported he would have faced arrest—and possibly execution—as happened to other Communists.

Australia had been feeding right-wing Greek governments with information about Zangalis and other “troublesome” Greeks with known or suspected Communist links since the early 1950s. The information was fed back into an extensive network that included files on every Greek citizen, categorised under different levels of “loyalty” according to whether they were known or suspected to have ever held leftist views. The full consequences of the Australian information supply are unknown, but some migrants reported their family members in Greece were being questioned by police about their activities in Australia.

Much of the focus of Zangalis’ activity would be improvement of working conditions for migrant workers who he believed were most prone to exploitation. He was a prominent advocate of getting migrants to join trade unions, and urged the CPA and unions to provide information to workers in languages other than English.

Zangalis’ ASIO file includes photographs of him at May Day parades marching under the banner of the CPA. He was secretly followed, his phone was tapped and ASIO agents also took note of who he met and what was discussed.

“I had very strong Socialist Communist views and certainly I was not prepared to throw them overboard once I got the ship to Australia as we had been advised by people in Greece (who said) once you got to Australia don’t be involved in politics That will be the end of you if you want to establish a life of luxury and coming good. Like the English who came here a couple of hundred years earlier I brought with me culture, language, political views,” says Zangalis, now in his mid-80s.

For ASIO pushing for the deportation of men like Zangalis was not enough. In a move that has disturbing parallels to current proposals for dealing with terrorist suspects, ASIO in the early 1950s wanted to cancel the citizenship of new Australian citizens whose “attitude towards the Commonwealth indicates hostility”. The Immigration Department picked an Italian migrant living in Queensland to be a test case.

Gioacchino or Joe Saffigna arrived in Australia from north-east Italy as a sugar cane and timber cutter in 1924 and together with his wife and daughter was granted citizenship in 1935.

At the time Saffigna was cutting cane in northern Queensland where workers were dying at an alarming rate from Weil’s disease, or leptospirosis. The disease, spread by infected rats, killed 19 men in 1933-34 alone, and left many others far too debilitated to work. The cane cutters were convinced that the outbreak could be contained by burning the undergrowth in the cane fields where the rats were thriving, but the farmers resisted.

Urged on by the CPA, thousands of cane cutters went on strike in defiance of their right-wing Australian Workers’ Union, which was recommending a return to work. The cane farmers resisted demands that they start burning, arguing they would need to reduce the wages of the cutters to cover the cost. The burning would eventually become standard practice across Queensland, and the incidence of Weil’s disease dropped dramatically, but not without a long struggle by the cutters.

Saffigna took a prominent role in organising the strike, during which police were accused of using intimidation to force men back to work. After the war he helped to organise a club in Brisbane aimed at encouraging Italian migrants and Australian-born people to socialise together. He was also involved in an Italian-Australian Association that wanted to set up a Queensland branch to take over some of the work of the Immigration Department by helping new migrants with accommodation, transportation and funds.

“The Immigration Department has never liked migrants who complain, and particularly if they organise complaints because it gets bad publicity for the whole immigration project.”

In 1952 Heyes reported that Saffigna come his notice as “one of the Communist agitators closely associated with the demonstrations by unemployed Italian migrants in Queensland”. Immigration Department Secretary wrote that ASIO had “secret information” Saffigna had been asked by the Communist Party of Italy to provide it with as much information as possible about unemployed Italians in Australia. Immigration documents do not reveal how ASIO came to this conclusion – though they do say Saffigna had reportedly told some migrants to refuse to accept work allocated to them outside Brisbane by the Commonwealth Employment Service because they’d have “no proper accommodation”.

Heyes, however, had to drop the idea of cancelling Saffigna’s citizenship after receiving advice from Kenneth Bailey, who served both as secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, and as Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth. Bailey pointed out that under the relevant section of the Nationality and Citizenship Act, anyone having their citizenship reconsidered on the grounds of “disloyalty” had the right to a public hearing before a committee of inquiry. While there was evidence that Saffigna was a troublemaker, it was doubtful that information gathered by ASIO could be disclosed to a committee. Concluded Bailey: “Even if it could, it does not, in my view, necessarily go beyond legitimate political activity in the interests of his fellow countrymen in Australia. Nor does it necessarily indicate adherence to a foreign power.”

According to migration historian James Jupp, activists like Saffigna often encountered problems with Immigration officials. “The Immigration Department has never liked migrants who complain, and particularly if they organise complaints because it gets bad publicity for the whole immigration project.”

Immigration Department figures later showed that between 1949 and 1969 over 500 people were refused naturalisation on security grounds with only a handful identified as so-called right-wing extremists. The Coalition government at the time argued the number was small compared to the more than half-a-million who’d been granted citizenship.

Immigration Department figures later showed that between 1949 and 1969 over 500 people were refused naturalisation on security grounds.

But in the same period, around 21,000 migrants had their applications refused or deferred for other reasons, including on character grounds, failing to understand the privileges of citizenship, and inadequate knowledge of English. Zangalis believes the number of rejections on political grounds was actually much higher than the official figures indicate and that difficulties with English as a second language was often used as an excuse to reject people on security grounds.

“The Immigration Department was not terribly keen to say that everybody who has been denied citizenship has to do with political activism. It wouldn’t have looked too good,” says Zangalis. “Yes, there were many who were told their knowledge of English was not sufficient for them and they need to reapply, but many of them said to me their basic reason they believe was their political activism, even association with people.”

In August 1952 Cypriot carpenter Jimmi Anastassiou was arrested for “offensive behaviour” after the handing out of leaflets outside the Greek consulate in Martin Place in Sydney against the trials and potential death sentences in Greece of several trade union leaders.

He was taken to the Immigration Department offices in Sydney to be given a dictation test in Italian – not one of the three languages he knew. A provision in the Immigration Act gave the Minister the power to declare him an illegal immigrant if he failed the test, which is precisely what Harold Holt, who held the portfolio, wanted. If Anastassiou failed the test he would face a six-month prison sentence, followed by immediate deportation, with no right of appeal.

ASIO had been gunning for Anastassiou ever since he started agitating for better conditions for migrant workers at the Yallourn power station in Victoria in 1951. The local Liberal Party secretary, David N. Smith, regarded Anastassiou as being “disloyal” and a “menace to the country of his adoption”. He wrote to Holt asking that he be investigated for being an active member of the CPA, and for speaking at public meetings of the Peace Council – a Melbourne-based organization that opposed Australian involvement in the Korean War.

Holt forwarded the letter to Spry who wrote back in July 1951 saying much of Smith’s information had been confirmed. The ASIO chief also advised that Anastassiou, who had just left Melbourne as one of the delegates to the World Youth Festival in Communist East Berlin, “would constitute a security risk” if allowed back into the country. Holt acted by issuing a directive to Australian diplomatic missions around the world that he be refused permission to board a ship or plane to return.

But the directive came too late—the non-computerised Immigration Department records not revealing until months later that the Cypriot had in fact already returned on board a passenger ship from London.

Anastassiou’s arrest for “offensive behaviour” gave the Immigration Department the chance it had been waiting for. Denied a request for legal representation, he failed the dictation test, was charged with being an illegal immigrant, and remanded in police custody for the night, with a trial date set for December.

Anastassiou wrote to Holt appealing to him to halt the proceedings, saying the way he was being treated by his department violated “all principles of British justice and of democratic human rights”. In the lead-up to the trial, the government was also flooded with letters of protest from unions, Greek community groups, and individuals, many mentioning how Anastassiou had served with the Royal Navy.

Fundamentally, human rights and workers’ rights were being quashed and so because he was standing up for that, they were labelling him a menace.

On the eve of the trial in December 1952, the documentary evidence finally came through from London, showing that in fact, he had served from 1943 to 1946 as a waiter in various shore bases of the Royal Navy in the eastern Mediterranean, and had been discharged with a good record. Holt decided that despite the security concerns, the proceedings against Anastassiou should be withdrawn.

“He has committed no breach of the law for which deportation would normally follow, and while his political activities may have been a cause of trouble and disturbance there is no evidence of subversive intent,” he acknowledged.

Anastassiou’s daughter, Marilena, says she feels saddened but not angry by the way authorities treated her father. “It makes me very proud that he was somebody that stood up for his beliefs and passionately backed what he believed in, but that he was described as a menace. It actually, in hindsight, makes me realise what sort of society we lived in and the injustice of those who wished to speak up against what were fundamentally human rights and workers’ rights were being quashed and so because he was standing up for that, they were labelling him a menace, I just think is an indictment on Australian society at the time. I feel that I am actually very proud that he had the courage to stand up and do what he did.”

With a shortage of staff speaking languages other than English, ASIO would use paid informers to monitor activity in migrant communities.

Ukraine-born doctor Michael Bialoguski, who would later achieve notoriety for cultivating the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov. Among those migrants Bialoguski was paid for reporting on was Polish-born Jew, Severyn Pejsachowicz. A former resistance fighter on the side of the Russians against the Nazi Germans during the Second World War, Pejsachowicz migrated to Australia in 1947.

Thanks largely to Bialoguski’s reporting, he came to ASIO’s attention for activities such as attending a lecture on Russian folk songs and a film evening at the Russian Social Club in Sydney. Pejsachowicz’s daughter Greta Goldberg, says given her father’s past close connections with the Soviet Union, and the fact that he spoke Russian and not English at the time, it’s not surprising that her father attended the club, and she doesn’t believe he was ever a CPA member.

In 1952, Pejsachowicz was also recorded by ASIO as having been a member of the Sydney Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, which ran “a consistent pro-Communist line”. He was subsequently reported to have attended meetings of the Australian Jewish Peace Movement and a function arranged by the Australian Peace Council, which according to ASIO was “a Communist front organisation”.

In 1956, when Pejsachowicz applied for citizenship along with his wife, ASIO recommended it be refused. Immigration Minister Holt decided to defer a decision, stating he would grant citizenship in 12 months “unless more conclusive evidence is available against them”.

Although ASIO was forced to admit it could obtain no fresh information about Pejsachowicz, Spry pointed out to the Immigration Department that he hadn’t changed a recommendation two years earlier of there being a “security objection” to Pejsachowicz and his wife becoming Australian citizens. Spry’s attitude towards Jews could have affected his stand. He was recorded as having told an Immigration Advisory Council meeting that: “Jews tended to intrigue and as a race were not free from security risk.”

Unlike many other migrants subjected to adverse ASIO reports, Pejsachowicz didn’t have to wait decades for his application for citizenship to be approved. Athol Townley, who had replaced Holt as Immigration Minister, decided to overrule ASIO’s objections – and citizenship was granted in late 1957.

He never wavered from having to get up and report for duty whenever he was on the roster. And he felt that he had made a contribution to Australia.”

Others were not so lucky. The person believed to have waited longest for Australian naturalisation was Greek-born Stavros Papavassiliou, better known as Steve Pappas. After arriving in Australia in 1927, Pappas became prominent in the trade union movement in South Australia, and was openly a CPA supporter. His naturalisation applications were repeatedly refused on political grounds —meaning he was unable to gain access to the aged pension when he became eligible.

According to his close friend John Lesses, Pappas felt a sense of injustice that he was only naturalised after a 43-year battle, having worked and lived almost his entire adult life in Australia. “He paid his taxes to the Australian government, and bearing in mind this man worked as a ship painter and docker at Port Adelaide after 65 for seven or eight years in order to be able to survive. That is a testimony to his commitment and his work ethic. He was very, very strong on that. He never wavered from having to get up and report for duty whenever he was on the roster. And he felt that he had made a contribution to Australia.”

The former Chinese seaman Boon Juat Lee, was able to settle in Australia after WW2, after he was granted residency-but he, too, was repeatedly refused citizenship despite having an Australian-born wife and two Australian-born children because of his membership of the Chinese Youth League in Sydney, regarded by ASIO as a Communist front organisation. Lee was also initially refused a re-entry permit when he wanted to visit his sick mother back in China for the first time in decades. When he was finally able to visit, he just missed seeing her before she died.

Others whose citizenship applications were repeatedly refused include the Dutchman Johannes Vorstman, aged 21 when he took up a job as a boilermaker in Brisbane. Though the claim was later officially denied, he maintains to this day that in an ASIO interview, he was offered citizenship in exchange for being an informant on his fellow migrants – an offer he rejected, so citizenship had to wait until 1972, when voters elected the first Labor government in 23 years.

That was after he’d sought intervention from the then Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, alleging a breach of his human rights. The Australian government’s response to an inquiry from the Secretary General said that under the Country’s Citizenship Act, granting citizenship was a privilege at the discretion of governments, not a right, and the Immigration Minister could refuse an application without assigning any reason.

Born into a large Greek family in a cotton-growing region of Sudan, Con Sarantis arrived in Melbourne in 1952, having served with Allied forces in the Greek Air Force in WW2. Sarantis never joined the CPA, but his membership of the left-wing Greek club, the Democritus League, was enough for ASIO to successfully recommend against him being allowed to be an Australian citizen until 1972. Until then, he couldn’t receive the same benefits as other Allied war veterans.

When her marriage broke up after her arrival in Sydney in 1953, Stella Poulos was left with a child to raise by herself, without any support from her ex-husband, family, or social security – and unable to go back to the conservative small Greek community in Egypt from which she’d come, where divorcees were shunned.

It was in the left-leaning Greek workers’ club in Sydney, the Atlas League, that she found like-thinking people who gave her friendship and purpose – and she soon became one of the city’s most prominent female advocates of many causes; speaking out for land rights for Aboriginal people, for nuclear disarmament, and for women’s rights, particularly for migrant women.

She never felt secure in Australia because for a long time she didn’t have the protection of citizenship like some other activists in the community.

At the Atlas club she was known for helping newly arrived women translate letters from government departments, as well as assisting them with job searches, interview preparations and finding a job or place to live.

Poulos was also never a CPA member, but paid the same price: it was not until 20 years after her arrival, after repeated rejections by coalition governments, that the new Whitlam Labor government finally granted her citizenship.

Her daughter, Marina Saunders, says she never felt secure in Australia because for a long time she didn’t have the protection of citizenship like some other activists in the community, and her physical and mental health were affected.
In her successful application for naturalisation in 1973, Poulos begged for the “discrimination against her” to end, saying her health had deteriorated to the point that her doctor was recommending she travel abroad for an extended period of time. She hadn’t left Australia in two decades. The accompanying note from her GP confirmed she was no longer in a state to travel alone.

Denial of citizenship also meant a denial of the right to vote—thereby robbing those on the government’s blacklists of a say in the future shape of the country they had emigrated to. “You are a second class citizen in the sense that you can’t vote,” points out Greek migrant and former political activist Dennis Skiotis, who was also refused citizenship after he arrived in Australia in the 1960s. Skiotis – who says he was never a CPA member - believes fear of being denied citizenship or having other retaliatory action taken dissuaded many fellow Greeks from becoming involved in politics.

“They were afraid of not becoming citizens, of being refused citizenship, of losing their jobs, all that. Imagine an unskilled worker losing his job because of politics? They weren’t prepared to risk it. And they came from a background where there was a lot of fear. During the civil war there were people killed, right and left.”

When Skiotis applied for citizenship, ASIO advised the Immigration Minister that he remained “an active member of the Communist Party of Australia”. But as it was policy not to publicly admit that this was the case, Skiotis received a letter saying merely that the Minister had reviewed his case, and he was “unable to approve of the grant of citizenship” – with no explanation why.

For Skiotis the denial of citizenship was humiliating. “You’re treated like a criminal. I said, am I a criminal? You tell me. What is my record? Show me my record. Have I done anything illegal? They couldn’t say anything, could they?”

“The dirty linen, even if it is old dirty linen, should be exposed. This is, what they did to us – denying us citizenship on the basis of our political beliefs, it stinks to high heaven.”

Though the change of policy under the Whitlam Labor government gave citizenship that had been denied to Skiotis and other migrants, their records to this day state only that they were cleared at their most recent security assessment – not that they were cleared completely of ever having threatened the national interest. According to Kep Enderby, who was the second Attorney General in the Whitlam government, such people should be given the opportunity to completely clear adverse personal records held by ASIO.

“I’m horrified by that thought if still despite, perhaps, the equivalent of an acquittal they’re being treated as though they are guilty and there’s no remedy they’ve got. What could be worse than that in terms of its effect upon your work, your career, your family even?” Enderby told SBS shortly before he died in 2015.

Skiotis agrees: “The dirty linen, even if it is old dirty linen, should be exposed. This is, what they did to us – denying us citizenship on the basis of our political beliefs, it stinks to high heaven.”

Some of that dirty linen was aired during the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security which was set up in the early 1970s launched by the Whitlam Government. Commissioner Justice Robert Hope wanted to know what criteria the Immigration Minister had been using to reject citizenship applications on security grounds. Declassified correspondence reveals that after considerable dithering the Immigration Department admitted that a document from a senior legal officer was the only written legal opinion supporting the validity of the Ministerial discretionary power being exercised over security cases under the Citizenship Act.

In the ASIO Act of 1979, the government of Malcolm Fraser adopted some of Justice Hope’s recommendations, including the creation of an appeals tribunal that could hear security cases from non-citizens. It accepted the Royal Commissioner’s view that without an adequate means of review “grave and permanent injustices” could occur. But it rejected Hope’s recommendation that the appeals tribunal should be able to look at cases going back as far as the creation of ASIO in 1949. It also rejected the recommendation for compensation to be considered for people who had suffered for being unfairly judged.

Most of the now elderly migrants who SBS has spoken to and who were “Unwanted Australians” say they would at least like an official apology, if not compensation, from the federal government. “They should make a statement in parliament that those sorts of things happened in the past and to make sure this will never happen again.” says Johannes Vortsman.

“Who is going to judge that and say, “You’re wrong what you’ve done to people. Say sorry,” Con Sarantis told SBS before his death in 2015. “Will this happen? It took so many hundreds of years to apologise to the Aborigines who were owners of this country. Let alone us, we came here as migrants. Who is going to apologise for that?”

Professor Kim Rubenstein, of the Centre for International and Public Law at the Australian National University supports the idea for an official inquiry into the way the “Unwanted Australians” were treated. “It’s not unlike questions to do with the Stolen Generations, or wrongs that have been done as a society because of the culture and the historical values of that period that we recognise clearly as being anti-democratic or illiberal in ways that are not consistent with rule of law principles that we so cherish. They are broader questions of national reconciliation, reconciliation with wrongs that have been done in the past.”

As Australia debates ever-tougher measures to deal with perceived terrorism threats, such as cancellation or denial of citizenship, and deportations of “undesirables”, some see uncomfortable parallels with the past. “What concerns me is that they might still be doing these things to a lot of new and emerging communities now under this guise of terrorism,” says Joe Caputo, Chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia. “I would sincerely hope that the sons of ASIO are not continuing the second round and targeting lots and lots of people who are good law-abiding citizens, who are here to build a life for themselves and they are probably suffering the same things as that wave of immigrants of the 1950s and 60s.”

Issues raised in the investigation have relevance to important past and contemporary political, legal and social questions in Australia.”

Hope Royal Commission lawyer Ian Cunliffe argues that without adequate safeguards Australia could end up having more long-term negative effects on innocent individuals who just dare to think differently from most. “One might say, ‘Well it’s simply history’. I think that, on the other hand, the activity of intelligence and security organisations is a continuing issue of great importance in a democracy such as Australia is,” he argues. “There does need to be a continuing focus to make sure that we don’t again fall into the sloppy and biased ways that were followed in ASIO in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I do have concerns that the political rhetoric puts all of the focus on some particular groups of people and seems likely to ignore other people who are also causing trouble.”

Former High Court judge, Michael Kirby, who recently chaired a UN investigation into human rights abuses in North Korea, goes further, saying that the issues raised in the SBS investigation have relevance “to important past and contemporary political, legal and social questions in Australia” – and an official apology in the federal parliament could be appropriate.

“This is an old wound. It’s a bit like some of the things I’ve been dealing with in the inquiry of the United Nations on Korea. The numbers of those who would be affected by the demand for acknowledgement and expression of remorse in respect of denial of Australian citizenship would be small, and they would be getting old and many of them would have died,” Kirby says.

“I hope that before this story is over we get in a state in Australia that we find it in ourselves big enough to acknowledge that wrongs were done and to have it expressed in our national parliament that we regret that was so, and that we assert that it was right that people should continue to protest their innocence and protest that acknowledgement of their association with another political party was not a reason why they should be denied Australian national status.”