On Wednesday 26 July 2017 the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) heard closing submissions in the Child Migration Programmes case study, part of its investigation into the protection of children outside the UK. The evidence was heard during a 20-day public hearing in central London, which involved powerful testimony from and on behalf of former child migrants as well as evidence from two former Prime Ministers.
This investigation is one of several that is being examined by IICSA. The public inquiry was set up in 2014 to examine how public bodies and other non-state institutions handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and to make recommendations for change in the future.
Specifically, the IICSA case study focuses on the country’s post war child migrant programme that existed from 1946 until 1970. However, during its exsitence the child migrant programme was responsible for about 130,000 children being sent to the former British colonies: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).
The IICSA public hearing examining the child migration programme was split into two parts. The first part concluded in March 2017 and focused on the experiences of the former child migrants themselves. During the first hearing, a total of twenty two former child migrants gave evidence to the inquiry about life before and after they were migrated. Many detailed a childhood of systemic sexual, physical and emotional abuse, slave labour and cruelty following their migration. IICSA also heard evidence from a number of former child migrants about sexual abuse before their migration. Our blog following the first hearing can be found here.
The second part took place in July 2017 and focused on examining the institutional failings of organisations in England and Wales involved in the child migration programmes. Specifically the Department of Health, Catholic Church, Sisters of Nazareth, Cornwall County Council and a number of charitable organisations, including The Prince’s Trust (as the migrating agency The Fairbridge Society, latterly known as Fairbridge, merged with The Prince’s Trust in 2011) and Barnardo’s were asked whether they took sufficient care to protect child migrants from sexual abuse.
The inquiry heard evidence that the child migration schemes ought to have been stopped immediately following a damning government inspection report in 1956 by Assistant Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Mr John Ross. The Ross report attacked the very principle of child migration and identified serious deficiencies in the expected standards of care throughout the Australian institutions where former child Migrants had been placed.
Its findings included a lack of “sufficient knowledge of child care methods” amongst care staff, little privacy for the child migrants, that some children were being exploited as cheap labour and that there was a lack of educational and employment opportunities. The report recommended a number of Australian institutions being ‘black listed’ until their childcare practice and living conditions had improved.
The findings of the Ross report in 1956 were both highly critical and controversial. Despite this, the British Government chose to ignore and suppress its findings by continuing to send vulnerable children to the criticised and blacklisted institutions.
It was universally acknowledged in the institutional responses that the child migration policy was flawed and misguided. During their opening statement on first day of the public hearings, Counsel representing the government said "Child migration is wrong. It should not have been sanctioned or facilitated...The lifelong consequences for those involved are a matter of deep and sincere regret."
Evidence was put to the inquiry that showed actual knowledge of sexual abuse within Australian institutions to which the child migrants were sent. In their closing submissions, Barnardo’s confirmed that they accept “…sexual abuse occurred to children in its care in the course of child migration programmes.” The Bishop of Leeds representing the Catholic Church “apologised to all former child migrants and expressed his sincere regret for the suffering of children, including in many cases as a result of child sexual abuse and the deep wounds which that abuse has left as adults”.
As well as a senior civil servant, former Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Gordon Brown gave evidence on behalf of the British government and its approach to addressing and redressing this scandal since Dr Margaret Humphreys first publically highlighted the problems with child migration policy in 1987.
After being alerted to Child Migration during his premiership, Sir John Major and his government publicly took the approach that the ill-treatment of former migrants was a matter for the governments of the countries the children were migrated to, effectively absolving the UK of any responsibility for the abuse that took place. During his evidence to IICSA, he confirmed that he had been aware of allegations of physical and sexual abuse of the former child migrants in Australia, but that he was not aware of any steps taken to investigate whether any allegations of abuse involved British authorities.
In 2010, approximately four decades after the child migration programmes ended, the British government finally apologised to the former child migrant community and set up a fund to reunite former child migrants with their families. This volte-face on the government’s position was led by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. During his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Brown described the child migration scheme as a "modern form of government-induced trafficking". He commented that the abuse suffered by victims could be "the worst national sex abuse scandal in numbers, length of time unchecked and geographical scope". Mr Brown explained that at the time of the 2010 apology, he had not been aware of the scale of the sexual abuse suffered by the former child migrants. His focus had been on the human rights violations suffered by those who had lost their identities, their families and their homeland.
In drafting their report and making findings, a key element that the IICSA panel will have to consider is the adequacy of support and reparations provided by the Government and the institutions to former child migrants.
Whilst the apology and the financial support provided to the Family Restoration Fund were both welcomed in 2010, they do not go far enough in providing sufficient redress on behalf of the British government to the former child migration community. Individual former child migrants, The Child Migrants Trust and the International Association of Former Child Migrants all seek personal compensation from the British Government. In his evidence, Gordon Brown also supported the call for all former child migrants to be compensated.
In Australia, a national redress scheme offers up to £90,000 to former migrants that were subjected to sexual abuse during their childhood. In 2015, 150 former child migrants who were placed at the notorious Fairbridge Farm School successfully recovered Aus $24 million from the Australian government for the abuse they suffered. In February 2017, the recent Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Northern Ireland made a recommendation that all child migrants sent to Australia be paid a minimum of £20,000 in compensation. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the UK government also pay compensation to all the former child migrants and/or their estates in recognition of their failed child migration policy, and their inconsistent and defensive approach leading up to the official public apology in 2010.
For those in the care of local authorities, each individual child’s migration had to be individually approved by the British Home Office in accordance with section 17 the Children Act 1948. Many of the migrating charities and the religious institutions would be paid a fee, per each child’s deportation by the British government. After the children arrived in their new country, they remained British citizens. The British Government gave firm assurances that regulations would be issued to safeguard child migrants but did not keep its promise.
It took 23 years after Dr Humphreys first highlighted the flaws in child migration for the government to apologise and to fully accept that adequate, independent services were needed to provide support to former child migrants. In those 23 years many child migrants died without being reunited with their families, due to the lack of understanding and sense of urgency within the government and their unwillingness to listen to the Child Migrant Trust. As seen during the inquiry, the evidence of child abuse has been available to government for many years.
It has taken more than 40 years since the end of the child migration programme for this abhorrent and ill-conceived chapter in our history to be publically scrutinised in England. Whilst a number of former child migrants have been able to share their stories, this inquiry has come too late for the mothers whose children were deported without their consent, many of whom have passed away, and for many of the former child migrants themselves who have died before the inquiry can conclude.
Time is of the essence for the remaining 2000 former child migrants due to their increasing age. A tragic reminder of this was seen during the inquiry when one former child migrant, who had provided his testimony, sadly passed away before having the opportunity to give evidence to the inquiry in person.
We await the inquiry’s findings on this first major investigation with hope. It cannot be too soon for the government to acknowledge its full responsibilities and finally provide appropriate redress to those whose lives have been so devastatingly affected by this stain on the UK’s past.