Whiter shade of migration

The White Australia Policy ended in the early 1970s. Pearl Higgins recalls its impact when she came here two decades earlier, as Tegan McNeill reports.

European immigrant Pearl Higgins remembers having to prove her “whiteness” when entering Australia in 1953.

Now in her mid-80s, Higgins was born in France and migrated to Australia with her family from Blackpool, England, in the days of the White Australia policy.

Higgins said that before being approved for entry to Australia, she and her husband, Frank, who is Irish, had to fill out forms detailing their white ancestry.

The White Australia policy governed the country’s approach to immigration from 1901 to 1973 when all remnants of the policy were removed.

The policy was first relaxed in 1949 when Immigration Minister Harold Holt let 800 non-European refugees settle in Australia. The policy essentially prohibited any non-European from migrating to Australia.

Despite the discriminatory policy being in place, Higgins found Australia extremely welcoming. She said, “I must admit, when we came to Australia we were very welcome, because of our nationalities.

“The neighbours were very, very nice, very lovely, because we were allies, we were British. And then [we] became naturalised.”

Higgins had fond recollections of her neighbours in Adelaide, many of whom were migrants as well.

The rapport between Higgins and her neighbours was bolstered by her and her parents’ ability to speak multiple languages. Her father, Ezisi Axelrad, spoke six languages – French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, German and English.

Higgins said she had moved to Australia to be closer to her family. Ezisi and wife Etty had migrated to Australia earlier.

Higgins said, “I was lonely in England. I was very young then, and my parents missed me. I was their only daughter, and so they suggested that we all come and settle here, because Frank didn’t speak any other language but English, and that’s why we all came.”

Before Higgins met her husband, she and her parents had travelled extensively in Europe, with a stint in Africa, after renouncing their Austrian citizenship during the Second World War.

“Before I married Frank, we were Austrian citizens, and then of course during the war, which was bad, a lot happened and my father gave it [citizenship] up … because they [Austria] were friends of the Germans. And I became British.” Higgins also held French citizenship, as her mother was French.

She said, “Every two years my son would take me to France, Germany and Austria to see the descendants”. That was until her son’s untimely death last year.

With her cosmopolitan background, Higgins doesn’t associate solely with one ethnic group, and – like a true global citizen – she has surrounded herself with friends from several nationalities.