U.K. offers apology for children sent overseas to lives of abuse
By Chris Dade.
February 25, 2010
In a statement read out in the House of Commons on Wednesday U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a formal apology to the many thousands of children supposedly sent overseas for a better life but instead abused or used as labor.
In November 2009 Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by many of the 500,000 plus children who spent time in state-run institutions and foster care during the 20th century.
CBS/Associated Press reported at the time that Mr Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia since 2007, said during his apology to those known as “Forgotten Australians”:
We are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy – the absolute tragedy – of childhoods lost
According to ABC Mr Rudd specifically mentioned “those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent”.
Those children sent to Australia “without their consent”, some just three years old, came from the U.K. While Australia was seemingly the destination for the majority of 150,000 children sent overseas for what were meant to be better lives. Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were other destinations.
The practice, which became known as the Child Migrants Program, started as early as the second decade of the 17th century – the present day U.S. state of Virginia being the place which welcomed the first group of children – and finally ended in 1970.
A more detailed history of the practice can be found at the Child Migrants Trust website. The Trust is dedicated to “reuniting Britain's former Child Migrants with their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and other relatives”.
When Mr Rudd offered the apology on behalf of the Australian government the indications were that Gordon Brown would at some point in 2010 offer a similar apology.
And Wednesday was the day when that apology finally came.
Noting that one of Mr Brown's predecessors, John Major, had stated that any apology must come from the countries that received the children and not the U.K., Sky News quotes the Prime Minister as saying in his statement:
To all those former child migrants and their families… we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that, instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. And we are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded
ABC says that he added:
And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved
Some of those sent to Australia by the British authorities returned to the land of their birth to hear the apology.
One man, Edward Cogan, sent to Australia in the late 1940s aged 10, said of the environment in which he found himself living:
It was like no-man's land. It was a shock. We had to work on the property after school, building roads, chopping through the bush. I didn't have much violence inflicted on me – not like some of the others. But I got punished with straps when I misbehaved. When I left the orphanage at 15, it was pretty traumatic. No family all my childhood and then sent out into the world. We weren't prepared for life. That was very traumatic for me
Observing that many of the children's parents never knew what had happened to their offspring ABC offers a comment from another child migrant Tony Costa. Mr Costa explained:
I got my fair share of floggings. I was aware of molestations that we saw, blatantly, whether it be in the form of the dining room or in and amongst the dormitories
Racism was apparently one of the reasons why Australia was eager to accept the children from the U.K.
John Hennessey, a victim of violence and sexual abuse at a Christian boys home, told the Associated Press:
We were used as white fodder. The Archbishop met us at Fremantle (in Western Australia) and I can still remember his words. He said, 'Welcome to Australia. We want white stock because we're terrified of the yellow peril
Australian authorities are leaving it to state governments and churches to compensate the adults who arrived in the former colony as children and were then made to suffer.
Meanwhile the U.K.is setting up a 6 million ($9.2 million) fund which will seek to reunite families separated by the migrants program.
Of the other countries that accepted the children – all were once British colonies – Canada, for one, has no plans to issue an apology.
Following the apology from Kevin Rudd CBC News reported that Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had asserted:
This is not something that has really been on the radar screen. I haven't in my 12 years as an MP heard anyone ask for that. Obviously, this is a British policy and the British government is going to take its own decision in that respect. I believe the experience here was different than that in Australia
Mr Kenney did speak of 2010 being declared “Year of the British Home Child in Canada”, which has indeed happened. A visit to the website for British Home Children Descendants provides more details on that declaration.