Over many years the UK government had allowed children—mostly from deprived homes—to be taken from their parents, orphanages or foster parents and sent overseas to institutions and families in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia—some 7,000 child migrants were sent to Australia alone. This migration of British children continued after World War II and didn't end until 1970. Even then it was not a conscious decision by the governments involved to end it—it simply petered out because the supply of children ran out. Local authorities and childcare specialists no longer supported the policy.
Most of the child migrants were sent to farm schools or orphanages by voluntary organisations such as Barnados and the Fairbridge Society and a few by local authorities. But once sent, no effort was made to check on their well-being or offer them any kind of protection. For some organisations the children were regarded as commodities and the Inquiry reports that one even issued requisitions for specific numbers of children.
Many witnesses at the Inquiry reported physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse and general neglect. They were often hungry, poorly clothed and sometimes lacked medical attention. One child was reported as losing an eye because no doctor was asked to treat him. Many received poor or no education. Children were beaten for misdeeds, locked up and starved. They lived in fear of reprisals and worst of all many were lied to about their families. They were told their families were dead when in fact some were not only alive, but looking for their children. Many institutions failed to keep adequate records of the children in their care and so the children had no hope of ever finding out who they were or where they were from. Some of these children were under five years old.
One of the most shocking results from this report is the fact that the British government knew about the suffering of these children as early as 1946 when the Curtis report set out clear guide lines for the care of children, including child migrants. The Home Office sent out a memorandum that the care of migrated children would be the same as that of children in the UK. Sadly nothing was done to implement this. The government had access to many critical reports on child migration during the 1950s but still did nothing to change the situation. In 1956 the Ross report stated how it had visited 26 institutions in Australia where child migrants were routinely sent and that they were so bad that no more children should be sent there. Still the government did nothing.
The Inquiry’s conclusion was that the British government’s attitude was determined by politics—it did not want to upset the Australians by withdrawing from the scheme or alienate itself with the charitable institutions, many of whom had powerful and influential patrons. The avoidance of embarrassment and risk to its reputation carried more importance than the fate of the child migrants.
It is sad to reflect on how long it has taken for this Inquiry to be set up and to produce its results, but the government’s position throughout the 1990s and 2000s remained—as stated by John Major—that they were “aware that there were allegations of physical and sexual abuse of a number of child migrants some years ago, but that any such allegations would be a matter for the Australian authorities.”
Then, at last, in 2010 Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology to the surviving child migrants and set up the Family Restoration Fund.
But why had it taken so long? Many of the survivors have since died. One witness at the inquiry had been looking for his family since 1964. The only people he could turn to for help were the Child Migrants’ Trust. Through them he found his mother and she died this year, aged in her nineties.
Thanks to the Child Migrants’ Trust, set up in 1986 by a social worker, Margaret Humphreys, many child migrants managed to trace their families—although sometimes the parents they had been looking for all their lives were by then dead. Director and founder of the Child Migrants' Trust, Mrs Humphreys, has worked tirelessly to help these former child migrants find surviving members of their families. Her book EMPTY CRADLES tells of the first seven years of her struggle to bring this knowledge out into the open and to help those involved.
The Inquiry’s final recommendations focussed on the need for the British government to pay financial compensation to the 2,000 surviving child migrants and it emphasised IMMEDIATELY. Surely these children have waited long enough for someone to listen to them and accept responsibility.