Select Committee on Health Third Report


The Human Consequences of Child Migration

60. Not all child migrants had unhappy experiences or emerged traumatised into the adult world. In his recently published study of child migration, the Australian journalist Alan Gill estimates that "possibly about 50% of the total number of child migrants have positive stories".[64] Professor Brian Taylor of the Ellen Foundation told us that former child migrants in Canada

    "do not want apologies. They are not about to launch class action suits. The surviving Home Children are old. Mostly it has turned out, from my experience of speaking to them and interviewing them in their homes, to be a beneficial process for them.".[65]

One former child migrant wrote to us:

    "It is with deep respect and gratitude that I acknowledge the enormous dedication and genuine sincerity with which the Christian Brothers with whom I came in contact performed their 'Parental Duties'. Without their love and support, I would not have achieved the success I have today."[66]

This contributor had arrived in Australia without "documentation or personal possessions" and was only able, through his own initiative, to trace and make contact with his mother's family seven years after her death.

61. There is undoubtedly room for argument about how large a proportion of child migrants found their overseas upbringing to be a damaging experience. Some of the representatives of sending agencies who appeared before us argued that the cases of abuse and hardship were not as numerous as bodies like the Child Migrants' Trust claim. When asked why the issue of child migration had only recently received attention, Mr Nigel Haynes, Director of Fairbridge, replied: "I put it to you, was it an issue or has it become one?"[67] Mr Haynes later criticised the television 'docu-drama' about child migration, The Leaving of Liverpool, as being sensationalised and not based on fact.[68]

62. Canon Christopher Fisher, Chairman of the Catholic Child Welfare Council, argued that a majority of child migrants in Catholic institutions in Australia had benefited from the experience:

    "If I could give evidence from a more representative range of witnesses, I visited Australia myself in 1995 and I visited every single institution either past or present to which these former migrants went and I visited heads of homes, staff, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, everybody involved there, and I interviewed approximately 100 former migrants out of our 1,147 which I think was fairly representative. I would suggest to you, and I do not want to mitigate in any way the abuse that some of those former migrants experienced, that I met far more people who were happy with that migration than were unhappy with it in order to get what I would call an unbiased opinion of the whole thing."[69]

63. Canon Fisher also argued that conditions which might seem harsh today may have seemed less so in the cultural climate of 50 years ago:

    "I was in a boarding school in England in 1948 and when I read some of the stories of the experience of migrants in the homes they were in in Australia ... they were the same conditions in public schools in England at the time in terms of cold-water showers, a very inadequate diet, outdoor working in the fields and all the other things that went on, so I think we really have to look at the historical context of this."[70]

64. Representatives of other sending agencies, in particular Barnardo's and NCH Action for Children, regretted their organisations' involvement and accepted that much harm had been done to individuals. Ms Caroline Abrahams, Head of the Public Policy Unit at NCH Action for Children, said that "no one in their right mind today would seek to justify child migration".[71] Mr Roger Singleton, Chief Executive of Barnardo's, spoke of "the heavily adverse impacts of being migrated on people individually". He added that he was "very ashamed" at the way in which Barnardo's had operated child migration schemes and been proud of doing so.[72]

65. The comments by Canon Fisher we have quoted in paragraph 62 above were made before we visited Australia in 1998. The conclusion we drew from our visit was the complete opposite to that drawn by Canon Fisher in his earlier visit. We held a mixture of private and open sessions with former child migrants, which afforded us the opportunity to meet over 200 people. Only a small handful described their experience as having been a happy one. Even those who did expressed also an awareness of flaws in the system and the damage caused to others. The great majority of the former child migrants we met gave us accounts of cruelty, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse.

66. One former child migrant stated that "most of us have been left with broken hearts and broken lives."[73] The consequences of child migration for many include difficulties in forming or maintaining relationships; fear of closeness and sharing emotions;[74] a need to be understood;[75] psychiatric disorders[76] including many attempts at suicide[77] and alcoholism; and feeling socially handicapped.[78] We have also heard accounts of inability to accept authority or hold down a job, a propensity to itinerant lifestyles.[79] Mr Norman Johnston, a former child migrant, told us:

    "There are hundreds and hundreds of child migrants in Australia who are, if not destitute, so introverted, they are so scared, so fearful, they have no self-esteem, they have no self-respect. This was all removed from them during their upbringing in Australia. It was physically and brutally removed."[80]

67. The fact that in some cases former child migrants have achieved a measure of worldly prosperity and success does not mean that all is well with them. The Child Migrants' Trust commented that

    "Even those with successful careers feel overwhelmed at times by the many experiences of loss and deprivation which they have suffered both before and after their migration. Many lack a coherent understanding of both the reasons for their migration and their history of placements with their family in Britain and in care."[81]

Success in life is, of course, relative. In a written submission, a former child migrant remarked

    "People invariably want to know: 'Are you better off?' This was the main reason given for deporting us as children. It is a selfish, loaded, insulting and unanswerable question."[82]

Mr Norman Johnston told us:

    "I deem myself to be one of those successful people but I would forego the total success I have had for another ten minutes with my mother."[83]

68. Another former child migrant wrote to tell us:

    "For the vast majority of former child migrants the most often asked question is 'Who am I?' Most of us were born in the British Isles of British parents. Our culture, heritage and traditions are British. Our nationality, our rights and privileges were our inheritance. Unable to make a reasoned decision we were transported twenty thousand kilometres to the other side of the world. Our crime for the most part was that we were the children of broken relationships. Our average age was eight years and nine months. In this one act, we were stripped of our parents and our brothers and sisters. We were stripped of our grandparents and extended families. We were stripped of nationality, culture and birthright. Many of us were stripped of our family name and even our birth date. We were stripped of our person hood, human rights and our dignity. We were referred to as migrant boy number 'so and so' or migrant girl number 'so and so'. And so we arrived, strangers in a strange land, lost and with no way back."[84]

The de-humanising effect of being referred to as a number was mentioned by a number of former child migrants during our visit to Australia. This, coupled with verbal abuse, left them with feelings of worthlessness.[85]

69. A sense of missing identity is a burden carried by many former child migrants. A former migrant to Australia who now lives in Canada told us:

    "There has always been the basic question of who am I and where did I really come from. The feeling of being alone in the world and having no identity ... We were not allowed to ask any questions, if we did the answer was invariably the same, don't worry about the past, you are here now and this is the best time of your life. What did they think was going on in our minds? Of course we could not forget who we were, the reminders were there every day and they are still there today ... We have no identity or family history that we can look back to, and in my case my nationality has always been a question mark ... I didn't even know my mother's name until I was in my late twenties ... The Birth Certificate I had been given was a Short Form Birth Certificate which did not even have my mother's name on it."[86]

70. Lack of a proper education has also handicapped former child migrants. The ethos at Fairbridge was to develop boys as farmers and girls as farmers' wives, and education was seen as superfluous to that end. Elsewhere, clothing was often inadequate and when the time came former child migrants were discharged into the community without necessary preparation for life in the outside world and with little or no personal documentation.[87] When young people left, at around 16, it seems to us that little attempt was made to ensure that their placements were suitable. We heard evidence that many of the girls went to remote farms where they were subjected to a life of sexual abuse.

71. The casualness with which agencies exposed children in their care to potential abuse is astonishing. One former child migrant told us of her experiences at a Fairbridge scheme in Rhodesia:

    "I am not sure if you are aware of what happened to us during the school holidays when Fairbridge school effectively closed down. Advertisements for 'us' were placed in the national press and we were forwarded by train to the people who responded at the outset of the holidays and returned at the end. I as a six year old travelled, with a group of other youngsters for the first 12 hours, and then on my own, approximately 400 miles by train, a journey which took over 24 hours. This was to stay with a couple who had not been met by anyone from Fairbridge, they had applied to have a child stay in their house. I continued travelling to and from this home six times a year for a number of years. ... I did not suffer any of the forms of abuse that have been documented by other child migrants, I was however well aware of others who were being abused in the homes they went to during the holidays.[88]

72. Many of the first-hand accounts we received from former child migrants described events as heart-rending as anything in The Leaving of Liverpool. One example out of many sticks in our recollection: a former child migrant who had been placed in voluntary care in Liverpool by his mother, a single parent who could not afford to keep him at home, told us that he had been sent to Australia without his mother's consent. He remembered a harrowing scene at a railway station in which his mother—desperate to get him back—struggled with a nun on the platform while he was taken away by train.

73. What we have heard from former child migrants, and the accounts they have given us in writing, leave us in no doubt that hardship and emotional deprivation were the common lot of child migrants, and that cases of criminal abuse were not infrequent. We regard the comments by Canon Fisher and Mr Haynes cited earlier in this section as being complacent in respect of the circumstances of former child migrants who suffered that hardship and abuse.

64   Gill, p 9. Back

65   Q73 Back

66   CM 115. See also CM 90. Back

67   Q 210. Back

68   Qq 212 and 213. Back

69   Q 216. Back

70   Q220. Back

71   Q217. Back

72   Q219. Back

73   CM 113. Back

74   CM 88. Back

75   CM 91. Back

76   CM 134. Back

77   CM 142 Back

78   CM 145. Back

79   CM 27. Back

80   Q 151. Back

81   CM 13A. Back

82   CM 23. Back

83   Q 141. Back

84   CM 224. Back

85   CM 44. See also CM 124. Back

86   CM 78. Back

87   CM 13A. Back

88   CM 161A Back

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Prepared 30 July 1998