Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Monday apologized to hundreds of thousands of children abused or neglected in institutions, including some 7,000 British children shipped to Australia after World War II. Sometimes called "the orphans of Empire," they received the formal apology after decades of campaigning for recognition. As with his government's previous apologies, many of the victims here welcomed the gesture, while others expressed a desire to see more practical steps taken to overcome their losses.
Inside Parliament House in Canberra, the nation's capital, about 900 of the former child migrants gathered in the audience to hear Mr. Rudd deliver words of contrition. The prime minister told them: "We come together today to offer our nation's apology, to say to you, the forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that 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."
Among those listening to the apology – which followed one delivered by Mr. Rudd last year to the "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families – was Mick Snell, who has bleak memories of his time in a Methodist-run children's home in Sydney.
Mr. Snell arrived in Australia under a postwar plan to empty British orphanages and repopulate the former colony with "good white stock." The children, who were shipped out from 1947-67, believed their parents were dead. In reality, Mr. Snell's unmarried mother had been forced to give him up as a baby. That was the case with many of the "orphans;" others had been placed in care by impoverished families.
Parliamentary inquiries in Britain and Australia in the past decade concluded that physical and sexual abuse were "widespread and systematic" in the institutions, particularly those run by Catholic orders such as the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy. The inquiries heard that many former child migrants, now in their 60s and 70s, are still deeply traumatized.
'For my kids to understand'
For some, Rudd's apology – which was also extended to Australian children who were abused and neglected in institutions – was a step forward. Speaking before traveling to Canberra, Snell said: "All I want is for them to admit it was wrong, and for my kids to be able to understand me a bit better."
For others, the gesture represented too little, too late. "I wonder how they think making an apology can right the wrong that was done," said Jean Costello.
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."
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."