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Thursday, July 30, 1998 Published at 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK

UK Politics

Child migration: MPs demand action

Australia took between 7-10,000 migrants between 1947-67

A House of Commons committee has delivered a scathing report on the policy of child migration and called for immediate action to help its victims find their surviving relatives in the UK.

Under the policy, which only ended in 1967, thousands of children were sent with government approval by church organisations and charities to Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

[ image: Forced to work for their keep]
Forced to work for their keep
The children were classed as orphans but most of them were not. They came mainly from poor families or were born to unmarried mothers.

Once abroad, they were frequently used as cheap labour or became the victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Contact database a priority

The Commons Health Select Committee said that child migration was "a sorry episode in British history" and the government had a moral and legal duty to do something about it now.

[ image: Taken away to a 'better' life]
Taken away to a 'better' life
The committee called in particular for immediate action to be taken to help former migrants trace their families. It said that time was of the essence because many of those involved were elderly.

It said migrants trying to trace their roots frequently came up against a brick wall wih the charities which sent them overseas refusing to help.

The cross-party group of MPs said that a central database should be set up as soon as possible containing details about the migrants' backgrounds.

If necessary, organisations must be forced by law to reveal details they hold, the report said.

The committee said it expected the "full weight of the law" to be felt in cases of proven abuse, including maximum possible damages.

Catholic groups singled out over abuse

The committee also called on Australia to set up an inquiry into allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse at institutions where the children lived.

It singled out two Roman Catholic organisations - the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy - for particular criticism over the institutions they ran at Bindoon.

The Sisters were frequently described by those who lived there as the Sisters Without Mercy.

The Christian Brothers apologised in 1993 for abuse which went on at their homes, saying they were not aware of what was going on, but the committee rejected this out of hand.

The MPs said they had no doubt that there was "widespread and systematic sexual and physical abuse".

"It is impossible to resist the conclusion that some of what was done [at Bindoon] was of a quite exceptional depravity, so that terms like 'sexual abuse' are too weak to convey it," the report said.

A discredited policy

In all, more than 130,000 children left the UK under the policy in the 100 years it was in force.

In the period 1947-67, some 7-10,000 were sent to Australia alone but the exact figures are not known.

Some of the children were as young as three and many were sent without the knowledge or permission of their parents.

The migrants were frequently told that their parents were dead and were given new names and even birthdays.

The report found that once overseas, they were often placed in large, isolated institutions and could be subjected to harsh, "sometimes intentionally brutal", regimes of work and discipline.

The MPs heard harrowing accounts from victims of the policy, including people who had been raped, beaten and given inadequate food and clothing.

The charities involved also gave evidence to the committee.

Barnardos said it looked back with "shock and horror" on its involvement in the policy.

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