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The General Langfitt Story

Chapter 6 - Resettlement in Australia

The Australian Selection Commission

On 20 July 1948 Mr L. de Noskowski, the Polish Consul General in Sydney, wrote to Arthur Calwell, the Australian Minister for Immigration, informing him of the existence of 'between 6000 and 8000' Poles in East Africa8. Noskowski had been told by Mr M. E. Raczyñski, former Polish Ambassador in Great Britain, that many of these refugees were 'young people who grew up during the war and are farmers. They speak English and would make very desirable immigrants ... there is a large number of young Polish girls who could be absorbed in Australian factories, hospitals and institutions'.

Calwell responded on 25 August 1948, saying he was already aware of the existence of this group and that 'the question of whether any steps should be taken by the Commonwealth concerning their resettlement is at present under consideration'. On 24 November 1948, Reverend A. Wierzbinski, the priest in charge of Tengeru Camp, wrote to Archbishop Tweedy of Hobart requesting his assistance, having heard of the Archbishop's interest in the fate of these refugees. Wierzbinski noted that:

No selective mission of any country ever came to Africa and for this reason the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) plans to transfer all refugees from Africa (about four thousand) to Europe where the selective missions operate. Our people are afraid to go to Europe, because if they are not selected by any mission, they would have to stay in camps in Italy or Germany where the conditions are simply inhuman. In that case the only way for them would be to return to Poland, where they cannot return, and in case of any trouble in Europe, they would be among the first victims of communism. IRO officials here seem to have little understanding of the worries of refugees. They treat the whole affair of resettlement as a plan which must be realised with disregard to the sufferings of people. They seem to consider their position as a good job and not as an institution for helping refugees.

Lists of refugees who wished to immigrate to Australia, and one or two personal letters seeking the Archbishop's intervention, were sent to Archbishop Tweedy over the following months. By March 1949, the Archbishop was in regular correspondence with T. H. E. Heyes, the Secretary of the Immigration Department in Canberra, although he met with little initial success. In April, the Australian government had decided it did not wish to extend its selection to 'these fields', despite the fact that the IRO had agreed to share the expenses of resettling some 6000 Polish people from the refugee settlements in East Africa and Lebanon. Any people selected from East Africa and Lebanon would be an addition to the 100 000 displaced persons which Australia had agreed to take from the camps in Europe, and preliminary investigations had shown that only 'one-third' of these refugees were 'good potential immigrants'. One-third were considered 'borderline cases' and one-third 'hard core'.

Archbishop Tweedy and Mr de Noskowski, as well as the Reverend Father W. A. Nicol, Director of the Australian Catholic Immigration unit based in London, continued to plead for the acceptance of the East African Poles (in letters dated 25 May, 3 August and 9 September 1949) and throughout May, June and July, the IRO made repeated requests that the Australian immigration authorities review their decision. The IRO charter was due to expire on 30 June 1950 and it was 'anxious to dispose of its problems outside Europe'. Major General (Rtd) C. E. M. Lloyd, Head of the Australian and New Zealand Mission to the IRO, wrote to Canberra noting that a Canadian selection commission had 'reported favourably on the physical and other qualifications' of the Polish refugees in East Africa, 'particularly the family groups'. The latest returns had shown that:

of the 1600 people in East Africa in family groups, 800 are employable, and 800 dependants. There are, in addition, 200 unattached women with 300 minor children. A further 300 unattached women have 300 breadwinning or adult sons and daughters, and 200 minor children.

While not wanting to 'jeopardise in any way the onerous and magnificent contribution of Australia to our European problems', Lloyd urged reconsideration of the East African Poles, especially as the IRO had offered to meet the whole cost of providing an additional selection team to assess applicants from these regions (letter dated 17 July 1949). In response to this request, a letter to the First Assistant Secretary from G. C. Watson (dated 26 July 1949) noted that:

information available from sources other than the IRO on Poles in East Africa, is somewhat sketchy, but it is known that they have already been picked over by teams from the United Kingdom and Canada who were selecting single persons but not family groups. The total number of displaced persons in East Africa receiving IRO care and maintenance as at March 1949, was stated as 4249.

An unsigned memo to the Minister at the bottom of this letter, dated 3 August 1949, recommended a selection team be sent. This was approved by Calwell two days later and by 3 September Major General Lloyd had written back to Heyes thanking them for the decision and conveying the IRO Director General's recognition of this as 'a magnificent example of that cooperation and mutual goodwill which has always characterised our relationship'. Lloyd also observed that the response from the East African camps had been most enthusiastic:

It is reported that morale formerly waning is now very good and enthusiasm so great, that at one camp, namely Koja in Uganda, the entire camp excluding hard core and Canadian selectees have volunteered en masse for the Australian scheme.

This letter also contained the first tentative suggestion from J. Donald Kingsley, the IRO's Director General, that Australia review its selection criteria for this mission because of the 'detailed nature of our problem in East Africa and the Middle East'. The 'problems' were numerous. First, the number of family groups who were 'good economic units taken as a whole' but in which the head of the household was over 50 years of age was significant. Second, there were considerable numbers of single men between 45 and 55, and single women between the ages of 35 and 45, 'all physically fit and to whom it is thought that a liberalised approach would be rewarded with a disproportionate dividend and great gratitude'. Third, in East Africa there were '130 widows with minor children and a further 130 widows with adult children'. Fourth, there were some family groups, 'all eligible under Australian European selection standards but who (had) one member with a physical disability other than T.B.'

The criteria for selection, which were to be 'rigidly adhered' to, were set out as follows in a memorandum to Heyes (dated 8 September 1949):

(i) Single men maximum age 45 years.

(ii) Single women maximum age 40 years.

(iii) Married couples without children who are prepared to accept employment which will not necessarily be together. Maximum age 45 years.

(iv) Married couples with one or more children, maximum age 50 years.

(v) Over-age parents of otherwise eligible selectees may be included provided they are fit for their age and there is a net gain in employables from the whole family group, and provided further that the employables are able and willing to maintain their over-age dependants in Australia (where over-age dependants are selected a full-time maintenance guarantee is to be obtained from the employable members of the group).

(vi) Persons of all nationalities may be selected providing they are of European race and have been admitted to displaced persons status by the IRO.

(vii) Selection of Jewish displaced persons be limited to the present 150f total selections which operated in the selection of displaced persons in Germany.

(viii) Selection of any person within the classes (i) to (vii) to be subject to meeting medical requirements and clear security background.

Koja, Uganda, 1949: members of the Australian Selection Commission with Polish employees of the IRCI (Courtesy of Boguslaw Trella)

Koja, Uganda, 1949: members of the Australian Selection Commission with Polish employees of the IRO (Courtesy of Boguslaw Trella)

Recruitment was to be based upon males being prepared to undertake unskilled manual work, while females were to be encouraged to take unskilled work in hospitals and similar institutions, domestic and factory work. Each applicant had to sign an undertaking that they would remain in the employment found for them by the Commonwealth for two years after arrival in Australia and were not to change their employment without the consent of the Minister for Immigration. After this time, if they had 'proved satisfactory in every respect', they would be entitled to remain in Australia. Residency did not entitle them to nominate relatives or friends for admission to Australia at a later date as these would be considered on their individual merits and be determined by existing policy.

On 7 October 1949, the Australian Selection Mission, headed by Mr Allan Joynes,9 finally left Australia to interview and select displaced persons from settlements in Cairo, Lebanon10 and East Africa. Meanwhile, Lloyd had once again requested that Australia relax the existing age limitation on the eligibility of single men to 50 years of age and of single women to the age of 45, as this would increase the number of available candidates by three hundred, 'all of whom are completely able to maintain themselves' (letter to Heyes dated 14 October 1949). This was agreed to on condition that this decision did not set a precedent for selection teams operating in Europe and that particular attention be paid to the health and general physical condition of the older age group (cablegram to Joynes, dated 14 October 1949). By 26 October, Joynes had been ordered to extend these new age limits to couples without children and to 'unmarried mothers', meaning unaccompanied women with children under 13, of whom there were fifty in East Africa who had previously been ineligible for selection.

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Last reviewed Tuesday 19 November 2013

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