IT IS A STORY that defies belief. It seems inconceivable that a British government would order the migration of tens of thousands of its children to far- flung corners of the globe, severing, at a stroke, all connection with family, country and past.
But after the Second World War, ministers, aided by respected charities including Barnardos, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, did exactly that, emptying the nation's orphanages of a generation of children, some as young as four, who were shipped to Australia, Canada and other outposts of the empire.
The children were told their parents were dead. In fact, many of them, destitute after the war, were very much alive and believed their children were in temporary care. When some sought to reclaim their children from the orphanages, they were told they had been adopted.
Many of the child migrants - who remember their 'new start' being smoothed with stories of exotic fruits, delicious sweets and 'kangaroos who would take you to school' - now claim that they suffered years of neglect, beatings and sexual abuse by the religious orders and charities that were supposed to care for them. British solicitors are trying to formulate a claim for 40 child migrants sent to Australia. Most are now in their fourties and are still British citizens. Legal action is already under way in Australia. John Hennessey, 55, a child migrant, says: 'We were only children and we were betrayed and abandoned by the British government.'
Child migration peaked between 1947-50, but 'orphans' were still been exported as late as 1967. Few adults knew or cared until 1986, when Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker, received an inquiry from an Australian woman looking for relatives, who said she had been shipped out from Britain at the age of four.
'I wrote back saying you must be mistaken. Britain doesn't send four-year-olds out on boats to Australia. I had never heard of the policy and neither had my peers,' Ms Humphreys remembers.
'The policy was devised to populate the empire with 'good British stock', but it violated every human right imaginable and caused tremendous pain to children and their families. It was not a 'new start'. Life starts when a child is born, not when a piece of social policy tells it to.'
Today Ms Humphreys runs the Child Migrants Trust, which has already reunited hundreds of child migrants in Australia with mothers, siblings and relatives in Britain. More than 5,000 are currently seeking the trust's help in locating their long-lost relatives.
Ms Humphreys has been awarded the Order of Australia and the Australian government funds her office in Melbourne. The British government has given little financial support and has been largely reluctant to admit any responsibility.
A two-part drama series, The Leaving of Liverpool, which begins on BBC 1 this Thursday at 9.30pm, may change that. The series, made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, caused a storm when it was shown in Australia last year. Thousands came forward with horrific tales of abuse. Ms Humphreys hopes that it will have a similar impact here in Britain.
'For many people the drama series will be a revelation. Sadly, it is an all-too-true reflection of what these children suffered. The stories are harrowing, but what we now want to focus on is the Government's intransigence in dealing with a national scandal of enormous proportions.'
Ms Humphreys, whose salary is paid by Nottingham County Council, has just one social worker and an assistant. Three full-time researchers volunteer their time tracing families in Britain. Searches can take anything from weeks to years. Today she will be addressing an all-party group of MPs at the House of Commons, to appeal for more financial support to right past wrongs while there is still time. 'The clock is ticking away. All the time we are searching, the mothers and relatives of these people are dying.'
The Child Migrants Trust can be contacted at 8 Musters Road, West Bridgeford, Nottingham NG2 7PL (0602 822811).
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