Child migrants sent to Australia in 1900's (screen shot via YouTube).

Dr Binoy Kampmark discusses the recently released UK Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR, some 8,300 children were sent to far-flung destinations as part of the UK’s child migration policy, ending up in Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada. 

Over an extended period of time, tens of thousands of unfortunates made the journey. 

At first instance, many were removed from families, care homes and foster care in England and Wales, often furnished with fanciful stories about their background and the fate of their actual parents. Many were entrusted to the care of institutions which inflicted varying degrees of dedicated and systematic abuse straddling the physical and psychological. Strikingly, such a policy continued despite allegations of abuse at such institutions as Fairbridge Farm School, Molong

The Curtis Committee Report of 1946, which recommended a presumption against migration and the paramount importance of the child’s interests, was acknowledged by the government of the day. The Home Office, in turn, accepted that the care for migrated children was “on the same level” as that in the UK. A troubling lacuna developed: accountability of sending agencies was never policed — oversight proved minimal and, in some cases, non-existent.

Through the 1950s, investigators busied themselves with the state of migration with little result. The Ross Report (1956) saw visits to 26 of 39 institutions in Australia that had been recipients of British child migrants. It was the Ross Report that was important in placing certain recipient institutions on blacklists that were, subsequently, not heeded.

In 1998, the House of Commons Select Committee on Health released a review examining the welfare of former British child migrants, concluding that these beings had been subjected to a spectrum of brutalities: harsh conditions, physical and sexual abuse prior to, during and after their journey. 

With that said, the report notes the qualifying accounts of several figures such as Canon Christopher Fisher, Chairman of the Catholic Child Welfare Council, who advanced the view that a majority of child migrants who had made their way to Australia “were happy with the migration than were unhappy with it".

Canon Fisher also deemed it important to remind Committee members that conditions were universally harsh for children — the sort that would be frowned upon now. Historical context saw the use of “cold-water showers, a very inadequate diet, outdoor working in the fields”, in both England and Australia across institutions of care. Pity the children, indeed.

Such policies of child migration, with their historically embedded caveats of context and circumstance, are far from unusual. But the UK remains singular in this regard — a point suggesting a cultural indifference, if not dislike, of the young from an institutional perspective. 100 youthful pioneers of indigent background, for instance, found themselves on a journey to Richmond, Virginia in 1618, inaugurating the practice.

The findings of the UK Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse were particularly damning in one respect: the failure of successive governments to protect children through the migration and settlement process. 

Chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay described, described the policy as

"... deeply flawed ... [and] badly implemented by numerous organisations, which sent children as young as five years old abroad.”

The report is harrowing in its panoramic cruelty. Children such as Michael O’Donoghue faced a particularly awful and persistent ordeal — one that began from the time he was placed in the care of Nazareth House in Romsey, Hampshire. From the start, the nuns charged with O’Donoghue’s care preferred to use, rather than spare, the rod. Canings and hunger were commonplace.

Attempts by O’Donoghue’s mother to retrieve him from Nazareth House on marrying an American serviceman proved fruitless. The nuns were suitably inventive, concocting the story that he had been adopted. O’Donoghue, in turn, was repeatedly told that he was an orphan. On migrating to Australia in 1953, he duly found himself in the care of the Christian Brothers. 

The unfortunate O’Donoghue became part of, and recipient of, remorseless, distinctly unbrotherly sadism. Beatings for bet wetting were regular. Threats of flogging were levelled to prevent any "tittle-tattling". 

One Brother Doyle

' ... organised special punishment days, during which he would make them watch horses being killed unless they owned up to accusations made by the Brothers.'

A certain Brother Murphy was described as a “sadistic paedophile” who sexually assaulted O’Donoghue. Brother Angus, not wanting to be left out of the flesh pressing, did the same.

The authors of the report identify a mix of social considerations and political sensibility as the cause of government reluctance to intervene:

'We concluded that the main reason for HMG’s failure to act was the politics of the day, which were consistently prioritised over the welfare of children.' 

There was government reluctance in jeopardising 'relations with the Australian Government by withdrawing from the scheme, and also to upset philanthropic organisations such as Bernardo’s and the Fairbridge Society'. Preventing embarrassment and injury to reputation, notably to high-end patrons, took precedence over vulnerability and necessary exposure.

A significant rebuttal to the “standards of the day” argument – that caring for such children had to be duly understood in deep historical context – was also made by the report’s authors:  

'More specifically for our purposes, various reports from the time of the migration programs were highly critical of how they were operating in practice, and of the care being provided to the children and they set out what should be done.'  

The muse of history is indeed complex.

The recommendation by the IICSA for a redress scheme for the abused is a stir rather than a violent jolt. 

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for the consequences of Britain’s child migration policy in 2010, though he left the pecuniary element hanging:  

“We are sorry they were allowed to be sent at a time when they were most vulnerable.  We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned them back.” 

The denizens of White Hall may well go slow on any policy that would draw from the Treasury. Transforming sorrow into monetary value can be a fruitless task. That said, the political impetus to supply some remedy beyond the verbal or written is present. While there are some 2,000 of the original child migrants still alive, they are ageing. 

As former ABC managing director David Hill, one such victim of the policy observes, “I’m a youngster among the child migrants”.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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