Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence



Britain is the only country in the world with a sustained history of child migration. Only Britain has used child migration as a significant part of its child care policy over a period of four centuries rather than as a brief and temporary expedient during times of war or civil unrest. To its credit, Britain offered a welcome to Jewish children escaping from Nazi Europe. Yet, at the very same time, hundreds of British children were being sent overseas as part of a hidden, shameful chapter in Britain's history.The reality of this policy was to remove children, some as young as three years old, from their homes, from their mothers and fathers, from all that was familiar to them, and to ship them thousands of miles away from their home country to institutions in distant lands within the Commonwealth.The origins of the scheme go back to 1618 when a 100 children were sent from London to Richmond, Virginia which is now one of the United States of America. The final group arrived in Australia in 1970. It is estimated that child migration programmes were responsible for the removal of over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom to Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the former Rhodesia and Australia.

Definitions and destinations

In the post-war era, approximately 7,000 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada received a combined total of about 1,300 children. Governments have not been able to provide accurate statistics concerning the numbers of children received from the United Kingdom. Many of the children were sent without their parents' knowledge or consent. Even children in Local Authority care were sent but they could only be migrated with the permission of the Home Secretary.In this context, child migration refers to children generally between the ages of three and 14; the majority being between seven and 10. These children were sent away with the expectation that they would never return, to start new lives always without their families and often after many years of harsh institutional care, in a foreign land.

Migrating agencies and motives

Many Child Migrants, British boys and girls, were sent overseas by specialist agencies such as the Fairbridge Society, established specifically for the purpose of migrating young children to populate the empire with "Good White British stock". Well known national charities such as Barnardos, which provided a wider range of child care services, along with the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church played major roles. Such charitable agencies did not operate under the more strict framework of regulations which controlled the work of local authorities. It was this lack of accountability that allowed the charities to make ad hoc decisions which forever changed the lives of thousands of children and their families.In New Zealand, children were often placed with foster parents while those in Canada were entrusted to the care of farmers often without sufficient preparation or supervision. Some Canadian farmers were even charged with manslaughter, such was the extent of their cruelty. Very few children were legally adopted overseas and the vast majority spent their entire childhoods in large, cold institutions or farm schools which accommodated up to 350 children.Child migration was inspired by a variety of motives, few of which gave first priority to the needs of the children involved. Consequently, child migrants were viewed as a convenient source of cheap labour on Canada's farms, as a means of boosting Australia's post-war population and as a way to preserve a white, managerial elite in the former Rhodesia. Certain groups of children were excluded as countries would not accept physically handicapped or black children, for example. One of the earlier motives of the schemes had been to maintain the racial unity of Britain's Empire.There was a misguided view that these British children could somehow be given a fresh start many thousands of miles from all that was familiar. The tragic reality for many children was appalling standards of care which fell well below accepted standards found within British institutions. Far too many children experienced practices and policies which would not have been tolerated by British child care agencies in that era. Children as young as seven sent to institutions in Western Australia were involved in building works without adequate food or basic safety measures. Many were injured in building accidents at a time in their life when they would have been in school or playing with their friends if they had remained in the United Kingdom. During the same period in Britain, many children were being placed into family based care away from institutional settings because of advances in the knowledge of children's developmental needs. But for most children destined to be migrated there was no family life offered. In many respects, child migration lagged behind both public opinion and enlightened child care policies.

Rhetoric and reality

Unfortunately, insufficient attention and consideration was given to the long-term implications of separating children from their families, their friends, their social context and their country on a permanent basis. Even if the children were to have remained throughout their childhood within a children's home in the United Kingdom they would have had the option of seeking out their families at a later time; not so for child migrants who were told individually and collectively that their parents were dead, that they were "war orphans"; that they had nobody in the world and that their country did not want them. The loss and bewilderment was profound. Their sense of rejection and isolation was to remain with many for the rest of their lives.

After being told fanciful tales of travel to the "Land of Milk and Honey" where children ride to school on horseback and pick up fruit on the side of the road, Child Migrants were sent to Australia without passports, social histories or even the most basic documentation about their identities. Brothers and sisters were frequently separated on the docks and sent to different institutions in different parts of the country; some were finger-printed and then loaded onto the backs of trucks for long journeys to institutions in remote regions, only to be put to work as labourers the next day. Many felt an extreme sense of rejection by their family or country of origin or both. Others felt rather like characters from one of Kafka's novels; their sentence was obvious—exile from their family and homeland—but the nature of their or their parents' crime was a complete mystery.

Many of these issues relate to the deeply flawed assumptions which permeated many child migration schemes. It was considered that a fresh start in a new country was best achieved by cutting all the ties between a child migrant and his or her mother and father and extended family. Only in this context can certain strategies be understood, such as allowing children to believe that they were orphans, even though their parents were very much alive, or providing children with only a short birth certificate which provides no details about their parents.Indeed, if these children had really been orphans it would have made it even more difficult to justify a policy of shipping them thousands of miles away to remain in desolate institutions or farm schools throughout their childhood. The most obvious solution to the needs of such children would have involved attempts to find foster or adoptive parents to try to replace in some way what they had lost, namely their parents and an experience of family life. However, as their parents were very much alive, adoption was rarely considered since it is a complex legal process requiring attempts to obtain the parents' consent. Instead, both the children themselves and the wider public were confused and deceived by the inappropriate and untruthful use of the label orphan.

A series of scandals

Throughout its long history, child migration has been punctuated by a series of scandals. The lack of educational provision, the overwork and inadequate pay, the suicides following episodes of ill-treatment, and the appalling evidence of protracted physical and sexual abuse—all have featured in official inquiries or newspaper headlines in both nineteenth century Canada and South Africa as well as post-war New Zealand and Australia. These variations on a theme represent different forms of child abuse, involving a particularly vulnerable, large group of British children whose interests have never been safeguarded effectively and consistently.

Unfortunately, lessons learned after bitter experience in one country have rarely been applied to child migration policies as a whole. Thus, large-scale child migration to Canada involving nearly 90,000 children was effectively stopped in 1924 following an official inquiry prompted by extremely serious concerns about the ill-treatment of child labourers. It was decided that the migration of children below school leaving age must cease as it exposed too many children to the risks of exploitation and abuse. Sadly, this argument was not followed to its logical conclusion in respect of children who were sent to other countries like Australia.

Safeguards and standardsSimilarly, another vital opportunity to safeguard these vulnerable children was missed when child migration resumed after the war. In 1948, concerns were expressed about the poor standards of care being offered to child migrants in terms of their selection, education and after care by leading welfare agencies. The British Federation of Social Workers claimed that many children faced "a new life of drudgery" and called for a commission of inquiry.These warning signals went unheeded. Again, in both Houses, during debates on child care services, further calls for action to regulate more closely the work of voluntary migration agencies were met with promises and assurances from the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary. Both argued that children would not be emigrated without proper arrangements and that regulations would ensure that standards of after care abroad would match those of children in local authority care. However, no such regulations were made when they were most needed during the first few decades after the war. These empty assurances paved the way for widespread exploitation overseas.

Thus, the Children Act, 1948 did very little to protect one group of British children who were most vulnerable—child migrants who were sent thousands of miles away from their parents and homeland. Sadly, the anxieties and fears expressed in Parliament were well founded as later scandals proved time and time again. The failure to provide the necessary safeguards which had been promised by Government Ministers exposed many hundreds of children to severe and damaging abuse.

The assumption that the good intentions of respected voluntary agencies were sufficient to protect young children from abuse was shown to be entirely worthless. The British Government's failure to insist upon more strict controls over the activities of voluntary agencies was reinforced by a similar poor performance by the Australian authorities in their inspection and supervision of the quality of care offered to Child Migrants. The resulting nightmare for some Child Migrants represented almost the full realisation of a paedophile's dream, near Perth, in the form of the large institutions administered by the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Christian Brothers. Even the Christian Brothers themselves admitted, eventually, that at least several Brothers were involved in the serious and repeated sexual abuse of many child migrants who also suffered from outrageous brutality.More than 250 men were prepared to endure protracted legal proceedings to press their case for compensation. Few of them would endorse the Government's faith in "good intentions" as a sufficient safeguard for vulnerable children shipped almost to the other side of the world.

Reaction and responsibility

Unfortunately, before the Child Migrants Trust was established in 1987, public knowledge or awareness of Britain's child migrants was extremely limited. Even today, many people react with a sense of shock and disbelief that so many children were sent abroad so recently. When ordinary men and women realise how vulnerable young children were left without adequate protection overseas, they feel a deep sense of shame. Those who pursue the matter further often discover the extent of the abuse suffered by these children or the limited help offered to them as adults. At this stage, their shame frequently turns to anger.Given its discredited history, it is not surprising that neither the Governments nor the agencies concerned with child migration have been keen to accept any realistic measure of responsibility for the human costs of these schemes. Similarly, there has not been made available a fraction of the energy and investment to reunite former Child Migrants with their families as was previously given in order to separate them.


The sad circumstances of the Child Migration experience include the following:

—  These children were removed from Britain often without the knowledge and consent of their parents.

—  Few children were given adequate information and honest, straightforward explanations to make an informed choice about their migration.

—  There was a lack of preparation to equip these children for their new life in a different climate and culture.

—  Child migration selection documents contained scant information and, at times, incorrect factual details about the child.

—  Children asking about parents or family left behind were frequently told that they were orphans, that their parents were dead. Such statements were often a deliberate deception.

—  At times, children's names and birthdays were changed for administrative convenience.

—  Brothers and sisters were not always cared for together or even sent to the same country.

—  Many were placed in large institutions isolated from the rest of the community and experienced severe deprivation and near slave labour conditions. This is particularly the case in Western Australia.

—  As a result of child labour, many were deprived of a basic education.

—  Many experienced severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

—  They were inadequately prepared for life outside of institutional accommodation.

—  Many children were not given their full birth certificate or any details about their family background or medical history.

—  As adults seeking family information from the agencies in whose care they had been and from Government Departments, their enquiries were often met with bureaucratic indifference and, at times, calculated deception when information has been made available.

—  Many former Child Migrants have been humiliated as adults by their lack of basic documentation and remain confused about their nationality.

—  Some parents were led to believe that their children were being cared for by families in Britain when, in fact, they had been sent to institutions overseas.

—  Few arrangements were made to ensure that children's inheritance rights were protected.While former Child Migrants share many characteristics, they are also a varied group as adults.On discharge from institutional care, usually around 16 years of age, many former Child Migrants were placed in labouring or domestic work on isolated farms. Others developed itinerant lifestyles, often using boarding house accommodation but rarely becoming involved in close, long-term relationships. This pattern of adult adjustment seems particularly associated with men who spent long periods in large, single-sex institutions. Among those who report explicit episodes of abuse by residential care staff, there is a high incidence of relationship difficulties, alcoholism, low self-esteem, depression and other psychiatric disorders.Many former Child Migrants have struggled to develop basic skills in literacy and only a small minority were educated beyond the minimum school leaving age.Certain groups of former Child Migrants remain very loyal to the institutions and agencies which provided for their care. Significant numbers have very positive records of achievement at work and long-standing marriages. However, their need to know about their family and medical background remains profound.

Identity and illegitimacy

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. Some of the agencies concerned with child migration did not employ qualified social work staff and there was little appreciation of the significance of this biographical information for a child's emotional development, self-image and identity, even in terms of the state of knowledge at that time.

In addition, there was a belief by Catholic agencies that it was better to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy by telling the children that they were orphans. Consequently, as adults, many former Child Migrants have had considerable difficulties in adjusting to the realisation that their parents, who had not died at the time of their emigration, might still be alive today. Their confusion was reinforced by a popular perception in Australia that the majority of Child Migrants were war orphans. In fact, this description was true of only a tiny minority but it served to prevent awkward questions being asked and difficult issues being addressed by those concerned.It is important to remember that among those former Child Migrants sent abroad in the post-war period, even the youngest are now middle-aged.

Consequently, time is running out for many who wish to be reunited with their elderly mothers and fathers in Britain before it is too late.


The largest group for post-war Child Migrants was sent to Australia, one of the most distant countries involved. Obviously, it is very difficult, expensive and time-consuming for those sent abroad to find their mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters in Britain. Even if this were possible, it is not desirable for families who have been separated for more than 40 years to be reunited without the option of support from skilled professionals experienced in this delicate and specialised field of work.

The work of the Child Migrants Trust is based on a twin track approach with a counselling service which is complemented by a family history research and record retrieval service. Only professionally qualified, very experienced Social Workers are employed by the Trust for this emotionally demanding work. The Trust's two offices in Australia in Perth and in Melbourne, both funded by the Federal Government, liaise on a daily basis with its staff in Nottingham.

Concerns and citizenship

Both public and political awareness of child migration as a matter for public debate is much further advanced in Australia compared to Britain. This is a result of extensive mass media coverage and former Child Migrants speaking publicly about their difficulties and concerns. In addition, there have been important civil and criminal proceedings against the agencies involved in child migration and their present or former staff members. The Child Migrants Trust has played a crucial role in raising public awareness of these issues through its books, articles and appearances in different media.In 1993, the Australian media gave considerable publicity to the formal apology by the Christian Brothers to those former Child Migrants and other children who had suffered physical and sexual abuse at any of their four institutions in Western Australia. Civil proceedings for compensation by over 250 former residents of these institutions led the Brothers to establish a Trust fund to assist those concerned, the vast majority being former Child Migrants from Britain.

It was clear that the Nationality of former Child Migrants was only one of several important issues which had not been given sufficient consideration by those responsible for Child Migration policies. Many former Child Migrants in Australia did not realise that only those arriving before 1944 were automatically granted Australian citizenship. Those migrated in the post-war era had to apply for citizenship and pay a fee. Consequently, many former Child Migrants remain British citizens, either through choice or ignorance about their position. In a very few cases, this policy resulted in former Child Migrants being deported back to Britain as adults after being convicted of criminal offences. The Trust has advocated on behalf of former Child Migrants in Australia who no longer have to pay an application fee to take up Australian citizenship.

Information and identityThe plight of former Child Migrants in Australia has been of particular concern to the Trust for a variety of reasons. Most former Child Migrants were sent to Australia most recently where they received the worst level of care. A vast number of these people have been outrageously deceived for much of their lives and have suffered the most profound loss. They were stripped of their identities as children and then denied access to information about their families. For years, many former Child Migrants have written pleading, begging letters to the agencies who migrated then only to be met with more lies, evasion and indifference.Every week, child migrants previously unknown to the Trust come forward requesting assistance to find their families, and still often describe themselves as "war orphans". On a daily basis, men and women migrated as children, now in their fifties through to their eighties, describe to the Trust's social workers' accounts of trauma and abuse in care. They describe the tangible impact of childhood abuse on their lives, displayed through sleeping disorders and nightmares, episodes of depression, an inability to form close, trusting relationships and a lifetime of despair. Many former Child Migrants display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and recount in enormous detail one or two specific incidents which have left indelible scars. For example, numbers of child migrants have recounted the degradation of having their hair shaved off as a punishment in the presence of other children. This humiliation was perceived by them as the final stripping of their identity.Aside from the emotional damage observed by the Trust's workers many child migrants today bear the physical scars of their childhood abuse. This includes major hearing loss as a result of constant beatings to the head. Some continue to receive surgical reconstructive treatment while others live with constant pain from injuries received as children in the care of charitable agencies.Child migrants who present to the Trust describe an increase in their desperation to find their families as the years advance, linked to their own ageing and the dwindling possibilities that their parents may yet be found alive. Further, they describe an escalation in their sense of loss and confusion as they reach a point where their own children have grown up and they reflect upon the key milestones in their lives and their fragmented sense of identity. Many describe and have written evidence of approaches made to the migrating agencies and the governments for information about their families stretching back over 40 years. Frequently, child migrants approach the Trust with high levels of suspicion because of their previous contact with other agencies. Many insist that they would only be prepared to work with the Trust if they were assured that it has no organisational links with the agencies who first migrated them and later failed to provide them with personal documentation, aftercare and assistance to find their families.

Charities and credibility

The experience of the mothers and fathers of child migrants has been documented over the past 10 years. Many feel a deep sense of shock and bewilderment at the circumstances of their lost children. Whatever the situation surrounding the original separation of the children from their families, the Trust has evidence that it was the expectation of Child Migrants' parents that their children would be protected and nurtured by the charitable agencies. The stark reality of child migration is quite beyond the comprehension of aged mothers who understood that their children were to be adopted within the United Kingdom, or who requested short-term care from the charitable agencies only to return after a brief period to be told that their child had been adopted or in some instances had died. Many mothers and fathers of Child Migrants feel betrayed by the charitable agencies and they wonder how Government could have allowed this to happen. This has raised significant concerns about the credibility of the migrating agencies and leaves many questions about the role of Government in these matters.

Passive or proactive

The services available to former Child Migrants tended to be quite passive rather than proactive in approach before the Trust's advocacy began to make an impact. Some agencies do not provide either counselling or family research services but merely provide access to their past records. A pensioner who was sent as a child to a Fairbridge Farm School in Australia by Barnardos sought their help to find his family as Fairbridge do not provide this service. Barnardos, in turn, asked the Salvation Army to pursue these enquiries but this request was rejected as he was born to parents who were not married. In despair, he contacted the Trust and found that although his mother had died, which he expected, he had a sister who was looking forward to meeting him. They were reunited by the Trust in England.Many former Child Migrants have no agency to return to as some smaller agencies ceased to function when their particular scheme came to an end. Consequently, no records can be traced in Britain for the several hundred children sent to the former Rhodesia and New Zealand in the post-war period by two different voluntary agencies. Those who feel that they have not been given full details about their family background as well as those with experiences of abuse as children often prefer to approach the Child Migrants Trust rather than return to an agency concerned with their migration.Despite its limited budgets, the Trust has developed a tradition of being prepared to take its services to its clients especially those who live some considerable distance from the Trust's offices. The Trust's Director has visited former Child Migrants in all the countries involved this century, including Zimbabwe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Regular visits to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire are accepted as a routine aspect of the Trust's work in counselling the families of former Child Migrants. Other social work staff and Trustees have also visited Australia, given its significance in the recent history of child migration.

It is difficult to convey the transformation experienced by those clients who, having believed for perhaps 50 years that they were orphans, discover that they are not alone in the world. Furthermore, often their mother or father is not only alive and well, somewhere in Britain, but is looking forward with some anxiety and much anticipation to meeting them as soon as possible. Perhaps they can develop a relationship with their elderly mother for only a few years, before serious illness or death intervenes, but much can be accomplished during those vital years.

Relatives and reunions

Some clients of the Trust have been reunited with large extended families and been introduced to over 45 relatives during the course of a hectic month's visit. Sadly, of course, some return to Britain to pay their respects at the graveside or at a cemetery. However, this at least provides a kind of closure, a resolution of their search for some answers to urgent questions about their life.The Trust's experience has demonstrated that provided sufficient support and time for preparation has been made available to elderly relatives, they can be expected to cope with reunions even after a prolonged period of separation lasting many decades. Reunions involving the same generation, such as a brother meeting a sister or half-sister, tend to pose fewer difficulties and have become regular events in the Trust's calendar.

These experiences of meeting their family for the first time are just as significant for those former Child Migrants sent abroad in the pre-war period, despite their reduced chances of meeting their parents. One 70 year old man, who left these shores in 1938 and returned this year to meet his four brothers and sisters stated that this was the first time in his life that he actually felt that he was a member of a family. The benefits can also be felt by those relatives whose lives have been enriched by a reunion with their sons and daughters or brothers and sisters.

Funds and finances

The full potential of the Trust to reunite families has been frustrated by its constant struggle for funds. Initially, the Trust applied to the Department of Health with a proposal that an effective level of service could be provided with a grant of £111,000 to begin in April 1990 followed by a grant of £92,000 in each of the next two years. However, the Trust received only £20,000 in the first year with no further grants for the following two years.

Funding resumed again in April 1993 but after annual grants of £30,000 over the past three years, the Trust now receives £25,000 for the present financial year. This will be reduced to £20,000 next year and there are no plans for any further financial support from the Department of Health.The Trust's original request for a total of £295,000 over three years has resulted in grants over a nine year period which fall short of the target by over £100,000. The need for a reasonable sum to be allocated over a fairly short period was based on the specific and urgent needs of the Trust's clients—to be reunited with elderly parents while they were still alive. Similarly, the absence of any grant for a period of two vital years deprived the Trust's few staff of any sense of stability in terms of planning the delivery of even the most basic level of service.

Fortunately, the Trust has been able to rely on the consistent goodwill and support of Nottinghamshire County Council which provided the secondment of the Trust's founder and Director, Margaret Humphreys. This bold and generous decision has given the Trust a solid backbone of reliable support. Other local authorities, for example, Liverpool City Council and private donations from concerned members of the public have also helped to maintain the Trust's services. The Trust has also been very fortunate in having key staff members who, whether paid or volunteers, have worked very long hours with limited resources.

Rights and resources

For many former Child Migrants, especially those who retain their British citizenship, the low level and erratic nature of the Government's funding for the work of the Trust produces a very poor impression. Many feel that the Government's failure to protect their interests as children has been reinforced by the low priority given to financing services for them as adults. Government funding for the Child Migrants Trust is due to end next year but the difficulties and deprivations suffered by some former Child Migrants will last a lifetime.

Many feel that their basic human rights have been neglected and abused. Most simply ask for rights which the majority of the public take for granted—the right to an identity, a copy of their full birth certificate and an opportunity to be reunited with their families.


In our view former Child Migrants and their families require and should be entitled to a fully comprehensive and specialised range of services. As a neutral, independent agency, the Trust has been established in order to meet the needs of this unique group of people. If former Child Migrants are to be given the opportunity to be reunited with their families before it is too late, urgent action is required to enable the Trust to complete its vital work within a reasonable period of time. The Government should give urgent consideration to the following measures.

4.1 There must be adequate and secure funding for the Child Migrants Trust if former Child Migrants are not to be disadvantaged again as adults. The Trust's funding by the Department of Health ends next year but the needs of former Child Migrants demand a service for several more years at least. The past levels of funding have been woefully inadequate and inconsistent, given the nature of the tasks faced by the Trust.

4.2 A package of resources which includes the payment of airfares to enable families to be reunited.

4.3 Co-operation and assistance from government departments in relation to accessing information to locate families.

4.4 The Trust should be assisted to compile and complete a world-wide computerised database of former Child Migrants. This would require the co-operation of governments and agencies.

4.5 Talks between the British, Irish, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand governments to ensure a co-ordinated response to the needs of this group of people.

4.6 Our clients often speak of the need for an apology and some form of public recognition of their suffering. There are no plaques, monuments or museum exhibitions which refer to this aspect of Britain's history.

4.7 The Trust has worked exclusively and intensively for 10 years with this large group of British subjects and their families. The work has been pioneering and contains many lessons for contemporary child care policy and practice. The Trust's experience needs to be collated and presented before both public and professional audiences. However, this important developmental and educational work cannot be undertaken with the Trust's present limited resources.

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Prepared 10 August 1998