Page last updated at 02:12 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Child migrant recalls his 'stolen life'

By Alison Holt
BBC News

Packed off with promise of better life

It is a cold, snowy morning when I meet Rex Wade at his house in Cornwall.

He is padding about in his flip-flops. He puts it down to the years spent growing up in Australia.

He is probably one of the last children sent half way round the world from Britain to Australia.

There are no exact numbers. The Child Migrants Trust estimates about 7,000 made that journey after World War II; academics put the figure at just over 3,000.

Rex was in care and thought he would find a family who would adopt him Down Under.

He was 11 when he left. He is now 51 and has no doubt his experiences there ruined his life, leading to years spent in and out of trouble as he tried to find somewhere he belonged.

Rex Wade
Rex Wade was 11 years old when he was sent to Tasmania

He was sent to a children's home in Tasmania where he says he faced physical abuse and hardship.

"They were horrible. There will be other kids out there who know, from other homes, they were used as slave labour," he said.

"And there was no love, no kindness.

"I spent all those years out there and my life was stolen. They were all wrong, they let it go on."

'Deplorable conditions'

The Australian government has already apologised for the abuse children like Rex faced and on Wednesday, the British prime minister will say sorry on behalf of the successive UK governments who allowed them to be sent in the first place.

Although child rescue charities usually organised the migration, it was done with government approval. Its involvement can be tracked in the national archives.

A group of orphaned children from a Barnardo's home in Essex en route to Australia on 7 October 1947
It would be glib of me as chief executive of Barnardo's in 2010 to apologise for something that was done in large part before I was born
Martin Narey, Barnardo's

The BBC has seen a confidential report written by British officials in 1956.

They went to Australia to look at the places where children were being sent, visiting 26 homes, two thirds of those approved by the British government. Their conclusions were damning.

For instance, one place was described as isolated, with "deplorable conditions", and the boys "appeared unhappy".

Accommodation at another was primitive, with managers "rigid and narrow in outlook".

The worst 10 places were blacklisted but while the government decided what to do with the report, children were still being sent to those homes.

According to Steven Constantine, professor of modern history at Lancaster University, child migration after the war was part of an Australian policy to increase the white British population.

And charities in the UK strongly believed children would benefit.

"The pressures on the government to continue this policy come very strongly from the Australian government and also from these very powerful and prestigious child rescue societies," said Prof Constantine.

"The Church of England were involved in sending children, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church.

"For them to suddenly be told that what they'd been doing was inappropriate, the politicians of the day were rather cautious of giving offence to such powerful lobby groups."

'Put right'

One of those powerful organisations was the Fairbridge Society which sent Rex to Australia. It now views the policy as totally unacceptable, but says it was supported by government.

Barnardo's was another organisation that sent children. It too regrets what happened, but its chief executive Martin Narey believes saying sorry is not appropriate.

"It would be glib of me as chief executive of Barnardo's in 2010 to apologise for something that was done in large part before I was born," he said.

"What I would like to do is something much more practical. It is to do everything we can to put right any hurt that is caused."

They are offering any children they were involved with help to go back through their family records.

As for Rex, he believes the apology from the prime minister is important, but long overdue.

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