White Australia Policy: Documents reveal personal stories of life under Immigration Restriction Act

White Australia Policy: Documents reveal personal stories of life under Immigration Restriction Act

100 years ago Australia defined itself as a white man's country.

The White Australia Policy of the late 19th and early 20th century was designed to reinforce that image and restrict migration to Europeans only.

But the reality was quite different.

Thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Syrians all called Australia home under the White Australia Policy.

Many were born in Australia or had operated businesses, bought property and raised families here.

Despite that, Australians who were deemed 'non-white' were subject to forms of control and documentation that their fellow citizens did not have to endure.

A new project is calling on members of the public to help comb through those archival records to find out more about their lives.

Government records tell personal stories


Historian Kate Bagnall said she hoped the project would help with her research of Chinese Australian heritage.

She said it was important to realise Australian citizens of non-European heritage were affected by the White Australia Policy.

"We often think of it as a policy to keep new migrants out of the country, but in fact it had real implications for Australians of Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds," she said.

"If you were a Chinese Australian — even if you were born in Australia and therefore a British subject by birth — because of the Immigration Restriction Act, you still had to apply for papers that would allow you to return to Australia without being made to sit the dictation test," she said.

Many of the people made to prove their identity through these documents needed to travel frequently.

Visiting family was a common reason for travel, but so was doing business.

A lot of established Chinese Australians ran multinational businesses, and needed to go overseas to manage them.

But before travelling, non-white Australians had to get special documents.

Without them, they could be denied re-entry — even if they were born in Australia or had been naturalised.

Getting the certificates meant visiting the customs office, sometimes with reference letters or police reports to show they were of good character.

Photos and handprints were taken for identification, as well as written descriptions of their appearance.

From documents of control and exclusion come glimpses of real life

All the paperwork generated under the auspices of the White Australia Policy is a rich source of information for historians.

The job now is to decrypt and analyse it.


Project organiser Tim Sherratt has built a website to do just that, and has called on people from around Australia to help out.

"The information itself is sort of locked up in those images, so our project is to transcribe those documents," he said.

Once all the handwritten documents are transcribed, more patterns and information can be found.

"To take those images and turn them into datasets for new types of exploration and discovery," Mr Sherratt said.

Members of the public have been invited to come along and help out next weekend at Old Parliament House.

There is also a website for those who would prefer to transcribe from the comfort of home.

There will be a series of speakers at the event at Old Parliament House so amateur historians and data sleuths can get a picture of how the White Australia Policy affected thousands of ordinary lives.

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