Page last updated at 05:10 GMT, Sunday, 15 November 2009

Ordeal of Australia's child migrants

Children waiting outside the SS Asturias
In 1947 the SS Asturias took the first post-war child immigrants to Australia

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Australia

The story of the British child migrants sent to Australia has been described as a history of lies, deceit, cruelty and official disinterest and neglect.

Before being shipped out to Britain's distant dominion, many of the children were told their parents were dead, and that a more abundant life awaited them in Australia.

Most were deported without the consent of their parents, and commonly, mothers and fathers were led to believe that their children had been adopted somewhere in Britain.

On arrival in Australia, the policy was to separate brothers and sisters.

And many of the young children ended up in what felt like labour camps, where they were physically, psychologically and often sexually abused.

'Awful experience'

In testimony before a British parliamentary committee in the late 1990s, one boy spoke of the criminal abuse he was subjected at the hands of Catholic priests at Tardun in Western Australia.

A number of Christian brothers competed between themselves to see who could rape him 100 times first, the boy said.

Sandra Anker was sent out to Australia when she was six years old

They liked his blue eyes, so he repeatedly beat himself in the hope they would change colour.

As parliamentarians reflected at the time, the term "sexual abuse" seemed wholly inadequate given the awfulness of his experience.

On Monday the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will deliver a national apology to a group known as the "Forgotten Australians".

In so doing, he will recognise, on behalf of the Australian government, the ongoing suffering of some 500,000 people held in orphanages or children's homes between 1930 and 1970.

At the same time, Mr Rudd will also say sorry to some 7,000 child migrants from Britain who live still in Australia - castaways of the empire.

The Australian government viewed them as ideal young immigrants - a popular slogan at the time was "the child, the best immigrant".

The British government saw them as a burden on the state, and was happy to see them go.

I spent years waiting for someone to realise they had made a mistake and to come and collect me
Sandra Anker

Sandra Anker was sent to Australia in 1950 aged just six years old - or "exiled", as she prefers to think of it.

She thought she was being sent to Africa, part of a wild adventure, but she ended up in Melbourne.

"I spent years waiting for someone to realise they had made a mistake and to come and collect me," she told me. "I was at a loose end for a very long time."

Crying as she spoke, she says she was deprived of a childhood and a homeland.

"It took years and years of misery of not knowing where we'd come from, who were, being denied our birthright of being British.

"It's really been horrendous. And I wouldn't wish it on anyone... We need to be welcomed back to our homeland."

Boys waiting at Victoria Station
Child immigrants often did not know where they were going to end up

Like most British migrants here, she is incensed that the Australian government has decided to deliver a national apology, before the British government has done so.

"There has been no sorries, no righting the wrongs. We've suffered all our lives, and nobody's listened. I feel that someone has to listen and say sorry….The British government has so much to answer for. How in the hell were we supposed to get back and find our families? Where do you begin? Where do you begin?"


Attending the national apology in Canberra will be Margaret Humphreys, a former Nottinghamshire social worker who set up the Child Migrants Trust in 1987 after being approached to help track down a former child migrant's family.

In 1992, in recognition of her work in the field - helping "a lost tribe," as she puts it - she was honoured by the Australians, which conferred on her an Order of Australia, a top civilian award. But not Britain.

Gordon Brown should hang his head in shame
Harold Haig
International Child Migrants Association

"The Australian government is delivering an apology when the British government has done nothing," she complains. Ahead of the national apology, the Australian government contacted about 400 British child migrants for advice on how it should be delivered. All of them, she says, demanded that it should be accompanied by a British apology.

"What about Gordon Brown?" she asks. "This is disgusting. They have abandoned us. There is a huge feeling here that we are being abandoned by Gordon Brown."

Ahead of Monday's apology in Australia, sources within the UK government have told the BBC that Downing Street will now consult with child migrants groups with a view to delivering some of kind of apology in the future.

Up until now, the UK Government has funded travel so that British child migrants can be reunited with their families - although the Child Migrants Trust has complained that it only finances one visit, and that too many restrictions are placed on the reunion scheme. It has also helped fund the Child Migrants Trust for the past 15 years.

That is nowhere near good enough for Harold Haig, the secretary of the International Child Migrants Association.

He is appalled that the Australian apology has come before any British apology.

"Look, it's an absolute disgrace," he told me. "Gordon Brown should hang his head in shame. He is allowing the country that we were deported to apologise before the country where we were born. It is an absolute disgrace. He should hang his head in shame."

The Child Migrants Trust is also unhappy that the Australian government is combining the apology with Australian-born children who were abused while they were in care. They look upon themselves as a unique group with a distinct history.

Ahead of Australia's national apology, the British Department of Health issued a statement saying that "[t]he child migrants scheme was wrong," which has been the government's stance since 1998.

The British government has said it is considering the implications of the Australian apology.

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