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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Deported children seek justice

Some of the children were told they were going to Australia for a holiday

Theresa Whitfield was eight years old when she left Britain to begin a new life in Australia. She is now an adult, and hoping for compensation for the childhood she says was stolen from her.

Watch this report by the BBC's Michael Peschardt
She was one of thousands of British children who were deported to Australia by British charities after the Second World War, often under false pretences and without their parents knowing.

Many were abused, neglected or used as cheap labour by the Roman Catholic nuns to whom they were entrusted.

[ image: The story of how child migrants became child labourers has been made into a TV drama]
The story of how child migrants became child labourers has been made into a TV drama
Some of their stories are now being heard by a delegation of British MPs who have travelled to Australia to investigate how the British government can help the deportees.

Theresa still bears the scars inflicted by the nuns at the orphanage in Neerkol, northern Queensland, and has vivid memories of a time when she was scalded with boiling water.

"Before I knew it she'd got one of the boys to get boiling water out of the urn_ and she just got my leg and she just forced it down into the water. I screamed and I yelled. It burned all the skin and I could barely walk for weeks and weeks."

Families wrenched apart

The child immigration scheme, mainly organised by the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Nazareth, was intended to bring "pure white stock" to former colonies, and ran from about 1850-1967.

The full details of the scheme are only now emerging. It has become clear that about 85% of the children were not orphans at all.

Their parents were told by the church and state authorities that they had been adopted by middle-class parents in Britain. The children were unceremoniously told that their parents were dead.

One former child migrant, Paul Fottrell, now 53, says that families were deliberately kept apart, and information that could have helped them to find each other was denied to them.

"The British government deported its own flesh and blood. It's the only nation in the globe to have ever done that," he said.

Little in the way of help

Earlier this year, the Sisters of Mercy orphanage in Neerkol publicly apologised for the cruelty it inflicted on hundreds of children, many of them from Britain. One of the nuns is now facing charges of sexual abuse.

But a representative of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Di-Anne Rowan, said that little has been done to help the children who were abused.

"Looking back you would say it has had an enormous impact on the actual children themselves - and you wouldn't want to see the harm that was done to them repeated in any way," she said.

Meanwhile, most of the parents of the post-war generation of children are already in their 70s or 80s, and the BBC Australia correspondent says that the current investigation represents the last chance for them to ever be reunited with their lost children.

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