Cost of a kiss: the Displaced Persons Program

Maira Kalnins and her family on board the Fairsea, 1949
Maira Kalnins and her family on board the Fairsea, 1949 (NAA: A434, 1949/3/16408, p.6)

In 1946, the United Nations established the International Refugee Organisation to manage the international refugee problem created by World War II. The following year the Australian Government began accepting migrants under the Displaced Persons Program and July 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of this program. Over 170,000 displaced persons came to Australia between 1947 and 1953.

Seven-year-old Maira Kalnins became the face of the Displaced Persons Program in Australia in 1949. (Note that the documents displayed here incorrectly record her name as ‘Naira’.) Maira was travelling with her family to start a new life in Australia after the postwar occupation of her native Latvia by Russian forces. Her photogenic qualities won her the role as the central figure in a publicity campaign to mark the 50,000th new arrival in Australia under the Displaced Persons Program.

In August 1949, Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell flew to Fremantle to greet the Kalnins. Records held by the National Archives show the level of planning that went into organising the publicity campaign, including the passenger ship Fairsea’s unscheduled stop in Fremantle, and parliamentary outrage at the cost of the trip. A newspaper at the time estimated that the Minister’s trip cost in excess of £1000, including £400 for keeping the Fairsea at sea for an extra day and £200 to feed passengers.

The National Archives Displaced Persons Program records have been inscribed on the Australian list of UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. These records document the lives of thousands of migrants who came to Australia in the aftermath of World War II.

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    House of Representatives Question, 7 September 1949
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    Department of Defence cablegram, 3 August 1949
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    Article on cost of Calwell's kiss, Sydney Sun, 17 August 1949
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019