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Australia's Rudd apologizes to forced child migrants

Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the thousands of institutionalized children and child migrants shipped from Britain to rebuild Australia after World War II. Many were abused.

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Ms. Costello was just seven when she was sent to an orphanage in Perth run by the Sisters of Mercy. She had left England with expectations of a country where "everyone was black and there'd be animals hopping down the street."

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The reality wasn't what she had imagined. Of her new home, Costello recalls: "It was a very hard, very cold sort of environment, and you learnt very early that it was easier to toe the line than go against it. The nuns were pretty free and easy with the strap, and you didn't have to do much to merit a beating."

Coming British apology?

Redress has been slow, and piecemeal. In recent years, several Australian state governments have apologized, as has the Catholic Church. Some states have offered compensation and counseling services; in others, services have been virtually non-existent. Both Britain and Australia provided funds to help people travel back to Britain to trace their families, but the money was limited and many missed out.

Some migrants learned that their parents had tried to seek them, without success – either because their names were changed when they arrived in Australia, or because parents were told by British authorities that their children were dead or had been adopted by wealthy families.

Returning to Britain, Costello found out – too late – that both her parents had lived well into their 70s. Of those responsible for her welfare, she says: "They deprived me of ever knowing my mum and dad."

There are calls for Britain to apologize, too – and, after years of turning a deaf ear, the government recently hinted that it may follow Australia's example.

Some good intentions

Yet historical records suggest that the policy of sending children to the other side of the world stemmed at the time from good intentions. Britain believed they would fare better than in cash-starved orphanages at home. Australia, meanwhile, was desperate to rebuild its population after suffering heavy war casualties. The children were cheap to house, and a ready source of labor.

And, importantly for Australia, they were white; this was an era when Australia feared being overwhelmed by "Asian hordes" from neighboring countries.

The institutions, though, were not properly inspected, and staff were mostly untrained and poorly supervised. The official inquiries heard that funds provided by the government for the children's upkeep were sometimes used to feed staff well, while the children were given scraps.

The homes also attracted pedophiles. Many children – the exact proportion is unknown – have said they were sexually abused. Others have described miserable, lonely lives, during which birthdays and Christmases went unmarked, and they never received any affection.

Laurie Humphreys, a former migrant, says: "We're all survivors, but emotionally it's had a long-lasting effect. It has affected our relationships; many of us have been divorced, and people have turned to alcoholism. People's lives have been ruined by what's happened to them."