The 'unwanteds' and 'non-compliants': ‘Unsupported mothers’ as ‘failures' and agents in Australia’s migrant holding centres

Catherine Kevin, Karen Agutter

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    13 Citations (Scopus)


    Ideas of assimilated citizenship are inherently gendered and during Australia’s post-World War Two migration boom they were deeply and explicitly invested in marriage, children and domesticity. In this period of social conservatism and economic boom, assimilation rhetoric functioned as a reassuring mirror for the host population, promoting the dream of prosperous family life as the ultimate aspiration for refugees and migrants. The role of immigration Holding Centres within this vision was to provide a context in which migrants and refugees could take their first steps towards accomplishing this dream. These Centres of necessary temporary residence were designed as sites of transition towards autonomous, assimilated family life. However, those families headed by single mothers, often referred to in government records as ‘unsupported mothers’, had limited opportunities to live up to such images of assimilation, or even to comply with the economic imperatives of the migration scheme that had brought them to Australia. Based mainly on Department of Immigration records, this article demonstrates that despite recognising the long-term economic and social prospects their children represented, government agencies viewed many unsupported mothers as system failures. They attempted to remedy the situation by turning these women into live-in domestic workers, at times placing pressure on them to institutionalise their children in order to facilitate this, thereby prioritising their compliance with economic imperatives over support for their parenting. Within the limited scope of their agency, unsupported mothers responded by attempting to negotiate the terms of their compliance or simply refusing to comply. For the latter group, Holding Centres became a more permanent home. This permanence is read here as a gendered form of resistance to a system that struggled to foster their economic self-reliance without compromising their capacity to be mothers.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)554-574
    Number of pages21
    JournalThe History of the Family
    Issue number4
    Early online date2017
    Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2017


    • assimilation
    • gendered resistance
    • migrant Holding Centres
    • Refugees
    • single mothers


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