Children that Britain forgot: Martin Hennessey on the 'orphans' who are to sue for neglect

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE VICTIMS of a 'shabby' post-war migration policy are to sue the Government in an attempt to win compensation and final recognition from the country they believe abandoned them as children.

Dozens of child migrants are seeking legal aid for an action against the Government and, if they win, ministers face the prospect of a flood of applications from other children sent abroad as a result of Home Office migration policy.

At the centre of the row are 10,000 British citizens who, while in local authority and private sector care between the ages of four and 14, were shipped to Australia in groups of up to 500 after the Second World War.

The last batch was sent in 1967 as part of an attempt to populate Australia with 'good British stock' which would also reduce the burden on the welfare state.

The children touched the hearts of millions of Australians with newspaper reports heralding the arrival of the British 'orphan tots'. These, it was said, were the 'waifs and strays', the innocent victims of the war arriving for a new start in life.

But while most of the children were told by state and voluntary guardians that their parents and family were dead, or had forgotten them, it has since transpired that almost all still had relatives alive in Britain.

Many families had only intended to give up their children into care for a short term, but were subsequently told their sons and daughters had been fostered into British homes and could no longer be seen.

Some families may have believed their children were heading for a brighter future in Australia. It is now widely recognised, though, that thousands grew up without reasonable care or education in brutal, poorly monitored, private institutions. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse before being 'apprenticed' out as cheap labour for farming families in the outback.

Confusion over their identities as well as the failure by the British authorities to provide birth certificates also led to problems with immigration departments, leaving the young adults effectively trapped in Australia. In spite of the large numbers involved, it was not until 1987 that the plight of the child migrants won international attention after investigations by a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who later founded the Child Migrant's Trust.

While no one doubts the tragedy of the migrants' fractured lives, organisers of the trust have so far failed to win recognition from the British Government.

While the Australian government has given financial help to the trust's Australian counsellors, the Department of Health and the Home Office have steadfastly ignored pleas for aid from migrants and the trust - except for a charitable grant of pounds 20,000 from the Government three years ago.

One possibile legal avenue for the migrants is to prove that the government neglected to ensure the well-being or safety of children passed out of its care, as required under the 1948 Children Act.

This week spokesmen for the Home Office and the Department of Health told the Independent on Sunday that there were no plans to provide anything further for the Trust or for the migrants individually, but Margaret Humphreys is not giving up.

'I have written to John Major, the Department of Health, Mrs Thatcher and to anyone I can think of. But I have simply been stonewalled by bureaucrats. They do not seem to understand the depths of the problem they are dealing with.

'We currently deal with about 15,000 child migrants. Not just from Australia, but from all over the world.

'This shabby episode in British history has humiliated and degraded thousands.'

(Photograph omitted)