When Italy declared war on Britain and its allies on 10th June 1940, Italian migrants in Australia became political pawns. In the interests of national security the Australian Government interned thousands of men, women and children. Most of those held in many camps around Australia, often in remote locations, were classed as 'enemy aliens', that is, nationals of countries at war with Australia. At the peak of the invasion threat in 1942, more than 12,000 people were housed in these compounds. They had no access to government support. The Salvation Army, which used to play music, shake their tambourines and sing on the corner of our street, offered emergency relief for destitute families, but a number of these were eventually interned at Tatura to access basic food and shelter.
Times were hard back then. Our diet was frugal, consisting of bread with maybe an egg and some tomatoes. I don't remember eating meat very often, although it was available for people who could afford it. Despite eating three Weetbix with milk for breakfast, I was constantly hungry. My father wasn't around much any more. He sometimes called in to pull all the flowers out of our garden, which made Mother cry, or cut our hair with a pudding bowl upended over our head to get the shape. This made her cry even more because she loved beautiful things and he'd spoiled our appearance.
When I went to visit my father and stepmother on weekends, she'd make soup out of vegetable peelings bought fresh from the Melbourne market. Her mother and aunts were wonderful older ladies, who boasted pianos and told endless stories about a life I knew nothing about—grand parties and picnics in the bush, and overseas travels. We could play with china dolls with cloth bodies that came from Germany and dress them with beautiful lace garments made in Paris.
Compared to this, I can only imagine the suffering the prisoners of war must have endured.
Internees produced goods and cultivated crops for the Australian war effort. Many of these men were deployed as farm labourers, or were employed as railway workers. Although there were a number of escapes, most POWs were recaptured because they had nowhere to go.
Everything changes. Now, most people in Western society have equal rights, although not equal wealth. Migrants move about the world to live in different countries. Once they've gained citizenship in a free country, they don't expect to be interned at an outbreak of war concerning the land of their birth.
However, right now, the refugee reception center on the Italian island Lampedusa represents the promised land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.
Recently arriving migrants spoke of being subjected to random brutality, not only from the Libyan army, police and militias, but also ordinary citizens intent on robbing them of what little money they earned from casual work or had borrowed from their families to reach Europe.
Do the youngsters play outside their camp? Do they realize why they're being persecuted? I hope they have happy memories to tide them over the hard times. If only everyone could see life in the way of a child.