More than 130,000 children were sent to Australia and other former colonies
16 November 2009: Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, today formally apologised to thousands of impoverished British children shipped to the country in past centuries with the promise of a better life, only to suffer abuse and neglect.
Britain sent more than 130,000 poor children to Australia and other former colonies as part of the Child Migrants Programme- which ended 40 years ago. As per the programme, Britain sent the poor children aged between three and 14 assuming that life would be “better” in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe. There were about 500,000 minors placed in orphanages, foster homes and care between the 1930s and 1970s.
Rudd sought forgiveness at a ceremony in the capital of Canberra attended by tearful former child migrants. Rudd said sorry for his country’s role in the migration and extended condolences to the 7,000 survivors of the programme who still live in Australia.
Rudd apologised to an audience of about 900 former orphans, known as the Forgotten Australians, that the abandoned policy was a shameful and ugly period in history which led to misery, emotional damage and an absence of love and care.
Rudd’s apology, broadcast live on national television, covered around 500,000 people who had campaigned for such a speech for decades. It also followed Rudd’s 2008 apology to the so-called Stolen Generation of Aborigines, who were taken from their families to be raised in institutions and white homes under assimilation policies which ran until the late 1960s.
Among those in parliament’s Great Hall for Monday’s apology was former senator Andrew Murray, who was born in Britain but sent to Zimbabwe as a child migrant at the age of four.
Rudd said he hoped the apology would help heal some of the lingering wounds. But he stopped short of offering compensation, instead offering more counseling, and help for the National Library to collect individual stories. Advocates for child migrants and those raised in institutions welcomed Rudd’s apology as an important step in healing some of the damage.
"In issuing this apology, the Australian government recognises and acknowledges that what happened to us was wrong. This was a system of ‘care’ which has had devastating effects on half a million Australians," said Leonie Sheedy, an advocate for those who grew up in institutions.
"We hope it will help to ease our pain, and that of our families, and lighten the burden on each and every one of us."
He declared: "We are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken away 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."
The apology came just a day after the British Government announced that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will also apologise for the child migrant programmes which sent about 150,000 poor British children to Australia, Canada and other former colonies.
Majority of the children part of the programme were ill- treated and ended up in institutions or as labourers on farms. As the children shipped out of Britain, got separated from their families, many were told – wrongly – they were orphans, while the parents were told that the kids had gone to a better life. But most were brought up in institutions, or by farmers, and many were treated as child slave labour. They were even physically and sexually abused, or were sent to work as farm labourers.
Dorothy Chernikov, a child migrant from Britain who arrived in Australia at the age of 11, said: "I’ve been waiting years for this." She also revealed that she has found 41 previously unknown relatives in the past two decades, and said: "I have an identity now. For 52 years I had no identity. I felt I was nobody. The weight is off my shoulders.
"My family loves me so much. I speak to them every week, on my computer every day. It’s absolutely terrific."
Another migrant, Sandra Anker, who was six when she was sent to Australia in 1950, said the British Government has "a lot to answer for". "We’ve suffered all our lives," she told the BBC. "For the Government of England to say sorry to us, it makes it right – even if it’s late, it’s better than not at all."
As the children shipped out of Britain, got separated from their families, many were told – wrongly – they were orphans, while the parents were told that the kids had gone to a better life. But most were brought up in institutions, or by farmers, and many were treated as child slave labour.
Realising the appalling effects of the programme, Prime Minister, Gordon Brown had stated that it was the right time to apologise for the UK’s role in sending thousands of its children to former colonies in the 20th century. The chairman of the health select committee, which looked into what happened, said the Prime Minister wrote to him this weekend, to confirm that he would issue an apology in the New Year.
According to charity Child Migrants Trust, “Numerous children under the programme were taken without the information or permission of their parents”. Specialist agencies sent them overseas to inhabit colonies with "good white British stock," the charity said.
"The apology is symbolically very important," Children’s Secretary Ed Balls had expressed to Sky News television. He added that it was a “matter of shame “that the “dreadful policy” had continued for so long.
He asserted, "It would never happen today. But I think it was right that as a society when we look back and see things which we now know was morally wrong, that we are willing to say we’re sorry."
A government spokesman said: "We will embark on a period of dialogue with those affected, previous to a formal apology. We plan to make a more exhaustive declaration early in the New Year."
Kevin Barron, MP cum chairman of the House of Commons health select committee, was pleased to receive written commitment from Gordon Brown in recent days saying "the time was now right" to apologise for the actions of previous governments.
"It is important that we take the time to listen to the voices of the survivors and victims of these misguided policies," Brown wrote. He asserted, ‘after consultation with organisations directly involved with child migrants were going to make an apology early in the New Year’.