Gordon Brown today expressed Britain's "shame" for sending tens of thousands of poor children to former colonies where many suffered terrible abuse.
The Prime Minister apologised for the "cruelty" of the child migrants programme, which saw an estimated 150,000 children aged as young as three separated from their parents and shipped off for what was supposed to be a "better life".
He also announced the creation of a £6 million fund aimed at restoring families that were torn apart by the scheme, which ran in various forms from the 1920s to the 1960s.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Brown said: "To all those former child migrants and their families; to those here with us today and those across the world - to each and every one - I say today we are truly sorry. They were let down.
"We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away when at their most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.
"We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.
"And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved."
Mr Brown said the intention had been to give children the chance to forge a better life overseas.
"But the schemes were misguided," he insisted. "In too many cases vulnerable children suffered unrelenting hardship and their families left behind were devastated.
"They were mostly sent without the consent of their mother or father.
"They were cruelly lied to and told they were orphans - that their parents were dead when in fact they were still alive."
Mr Brown went on: "When they arrived overseas - all alone in the world - many of our most vulnerable children endured harsh conditions, neglect and abuse in the often cold and brutal institutions which received them.
"Those children were robbed of their childhood: those most precious years of life."
The premier said the "shameful episode" had seen Britain "fail in the first duty of a nation: to protect its children".
"We cannot change history, but I believe that by confronting the failings of the past we can show we are determined to do all we can to heal the wounds," he added.
Mr Brown revealed his intention to apologise for the actions of previous governments in November, shortly before Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said sorry to the thousands of British migrants who were abused or neglected in state care.
The wording of the apology by Mr Brown is believed to have been discussed with charities representing former child migrants and their families.
Forty survivors flew to London to listen to Mr Brown's formal statement, and he will meet them at an event in Westminster later.
Mr Rudd, speaking to a gathering of 1,000 victims known as the "Forgotten Australians" in Canberra in November, said: "We are sorry -sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.
"Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.
"Sorry for the tragedy - the absolute tragedy - of childhoods lost."
He said the Australian government wanted the national apology to become "a turning point in our nation's story".
Mr Rudd said it was "an ugly story" and a "great evil" had been done.Reuse content