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The hidden plight of Britain's child migrants

Alison Millar and Adam Lamb consider the recent testimony at the IICSA from former child migrants, sent overseas in their thousands, often to face abuse and suffering at the hands of those responsible for their care

Child migrants Australia
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Alison Millar (pictured) is partner and head of the abuse team at Leigh Day. Adam is a trainee lawyer working with Alison and the abuse team on legal action on behalf of survivors brought against individuals including teachers, carers and sports coaches as well as the institutions in which the abuse took place.
On the 10 March 2017, phase one of the Government’s investigations into the protection of children outside the UK came to an end.

This investigation is one of several that is being examined by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Specifically, the investigation into the protection of children outside the UK focuses on the country’s child migrant programme that existed from the 1920’s until the 1970’s.

During its existence, the child migrant programme was responsible for over 130,000 children being sent to the former British colonies; Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).

The children were generally considered to be from deprived backgrounds and were aged between three and fourteen. Charitable organisations, such as the Fairbridge Society, The Sisters of Nazareth and Barnardo’s, alongside religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, assisted the government to organise, send and place the migrant children overseas.

As heard during the first phase of the investigation, a purpose of the child migration programme was to populate the empire with "good, white British stock".

According to Section 17 of the Children Act 1948, the Home Secretary was responsible for the ‘export’ of all child migrants in the care of local authorities. A child could not be migrated unless the Home Secretary had personally provided written consent.

Furthermore, the Home Secretary had to be personally aware that the migration would be of benefit to the individual child. Once the children arrived in their new country, IICSA heard testimony of forcible separations from siblings and some children were even told that their parents were dead.

In Australia, many UK & Irish child migrants were driven to remote farm schools run by religious orders and charities. Once there, the children were forced into a childhood of hard labour. They received little or no education, were inadequately fed and forced to live in the most appalling conditions. Many were subjected to regular physical beatings, emotional cruelty and sexual abuse by those charged to care for them.

The indescribable effects of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse has dominated the lives of the former child migrants, many of whom are now in their late sixties and seventies. In February 2011, Gordon Brown on behalf of the UK Government issued an official apology for the “shameful” and “misguided” child migration program.

This inquiry is important as it is the first independent scrutiny of the systemic institutional failures by the UK government that directly led to creating an environment where the sexual abuse of former child migrants could flourish. Phase one of the Inquiry has focused on the experiences of the former child migrants themselves.

A total of twenty two former child migrants have given evidence to the inquiry, thirteen of which were done in person or by video link.

The harrowing accounts provided to the inquiry include that of 71 year old Marcelle O’Brian who described how she was used as “slave labour” at the Fairbridge School in Pinjarra, Australia. She was forced to eat pig swill and was regularly beaten with a stick by her male teacher from a young age.

Ms O’Brian was sexually assaulted from a young age by the deputy principal. When she was a teenager, Ms O’Brian detailed how she was gang-raped by three men whilst working on a farm. She never told anyone about the rape because she knew no one would take any notice.

Another exceptionally emotionally account came from Oliver Cosgrove, who spent his child and adolescent years at Castledare, an orphanage run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers in Western Australia.

Mr Cosgrove detailed how he and his peers "Were told that we always had to sleep on our right hand side so that the heart was closer to heaven". Once the lights went out, a choir master would then enter the dormitory and subject Mr Cosgrove to repeated sexual assaults.

Another former child migrant, who remained anonymous, told the inquiry how he had bottled up the abuse he was subjected to for nearly 30 years and only chose to speak out when he found out about the IICSA. He described the physically demanding jobs the Christian Brother’s made him do, which included pulling down trees, clearing land and digging out a swimming pool.

Whilst he was a resident, he and his peers were only provided with one pair grey shirt and shorts to wear. They were not provided with underwear or shoes.

In addition to the former child migrants, Dr Margaret Humphreys gave evidence to the Inquiry. Dr Humphreys is the social worker that in 1987 exposed the scale and suffering of tens of thousands former child migrants.

She founded the Child Migrant Trust and is responsible for reuniting over 1000 former child migrants with their families all over the world. In her evidence, Dr Humphreys set out how the removal of each child’s identity and being told they were orphans aided the abuse to take place.

In addition to their 2010 apology, the Government has stated “Child migration is wrong. It should not have been sanctioned or facilitated ... The lifelong consequences for those involved are a matter of deep and sincere regret.”

Internal government policy and a failure to take responsibility for British children abroad led to the former child migrants being subjected to abhorrent acts of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Almost everything possible combined in the child migrants having no proper safeguards in place to protect their rights.

Children remain some of the most vulnerable members of our international society who require our legal protection at all stages of development, and if they are to be migrated from their homeland a set of international rules should protect them.

Even though much has been done in recognition of the rights of the child, in order to protect future generations of refugees and un-accompanied migrant children, the current and future government must learn from its past mistakes.

Phase two of the investigation into the protection of children outside the UK is due to commence on 10 July 2017. During phase two, we will hear from the government, Catholic Church and the charitable sending organisations.

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