1940s–60s: A Journey for Many

Emigration poster c. 1948
Emigration poster c. 1948: 'Australia, land of tomorrow'
Image: Joe Greenberg
Source: Museum Victoria

The outbreak of World War II closed Australian ports to immigration. At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Eastern Europe needed somewhere to go. Others, especially Britons, were keen to make a fresh start.

In the period after the war, immigrants from Europe often experienced crowded conditions aboard hastily refitted troop ships. Dormitory style accommodation was provided to transport as many passengers as possible in order to meet the demand. However, conditions soon improved as shipping companies started to compete for the lucrative migrant trade.

In order to attract passengers, competing shipping companies promoted the exotic ports on the Suez Canal route. However, the canal was closed to liners during the Suez Crisis in 1956-57 and again in 1967-75 following the Arab-Israeli wars. In these years, passenger ships returned to the old route down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope.

'Populate or perish' became the catchcry, as the Australian Government embarked on an intensive international promotional campaign to encourage migration to Australia. The campaign initially targeted Britons with schemes such as 'Bring out a Briton', then expanded to provide assistance and reunion schemes to other Europeans.

The first major post-war wave of migration started with Displaced Persons or DPs as they were called. These people had fled their countries of birth due to war, dislocation and the redrawing of national borders. Between 1947 and 1953, over 170,000 DPs came to Australia, many from Eastern Europe, where they had suffered terribly during the war.

The second wave of post-war immigration arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, and consisted of those seeking employment and better living conditions. These included migrants from Italy, Greece, Malta, Croatia and Turkey.

These programs were an enormous success. The origins of 'New Australians' changed markedly, with British migrants only making up half of the intake, and many migrants coming from southern, eastern and northern Europe. In 1955, the one millionth post-war migrant arrived. Mass migration to Australia continued until the 1960s.


  • Visit the website of the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

    What is the ancestry of the Australian population?
    How does this compare with the ancestry of the students in your class?

    Where have most migrants to Australia come from in recent years? How does this compare with the 1940s-1960s?

  • Visit the website of the UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency:

    In which parts of the world are most refugees or displaced persons now located?
    How does this compare with the 1940s-1960s?

    Australia accepts refugees from some of these areas. Perhaps some of the people in your school or neighbourhood have come to Australia as refugees.

Image Gallery

Barbara Porritt: the millionth migrant