LONDON — As many as 150,000 poor British children were shipped off to the colonies over three and a half centuries, often taken from struggling families under programs intended to provide them with a new start — and the Empire with a supply of sturdy white workers.
Forty years after the program stopped, Britain and Australia are saying sorry to the child migrants, who were promised a better life only to suffer abuse and neglect thousands of miles from home.
The British government said Sunday that Prime Minister Gordon Brown would apologize for child migrant programs that sent boys and girls as young as 3 to Australia, Canada and other former colonies. Many ended up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused, or were sent to work as farm laborers.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will offer his own apology Monday to the child migrants, as well as to the "forgotten Australians," children who suffered in state care during the last century.
Sandra Anker, who was 6 when she was sent to Australia in 1950, said the British government has "a lot to answer for."
"We've suffered all our lives," she told the BBC. "For the government of England to say sorry to us, it makes it right — even if it's late, it's better than not at all."
The British government has estimated that a total of 150,000 British children may have been shipped abroad between 1618 — when a group was sent to the Virginia Colony — and 1967, most of them from the late 19th century onwards.
After 1920, most of the children went to Australia through programs run by the government, religious groups and children's charities.
A 2001 Australian report said that between 6,000 and 30,000 children from Britain and Malta, often taken from unmarried mothers or impoverished families, were sent alone to Australia as migrants during the 20th century. Many of the children were told that they were orphans, though most had either been abandoned or taken from their families by the state. Siblings were commonly split up once they arrived in Australia.
Authorities believed they were acting in the children's best interests, but the migration also was intended to stop them from being a burden on the British state while supplying the receiving countries with potential workers. A 1998 British parliamentary inquiry noted that "a further motive was racist: the importation of 'good white stock' was seen as a desirable policy objective in the developing British Colonies."
British Children's Secretary Ed Balls said the child migrant policy was "a stain on our society."
"The apology is symbolically very important," he told Sky News television.
"I think it is important that we say to the children who are now adults and older people and to their offspring that this is something that we look back on in shame," he said.
"It would never happen today. But I think it is right that as a society, when we look back and see things which we now know were morally wrong, that we are willing to say we're sorry."
Britain has been trying to make amends since the late 1990s by funding trips to reunite migrants with their families in Britain.
Brown's office said officials would consult with representatives of the surviving children before making a formal apology next year.
Official apologies for historical wrongs have proved controversial.
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard initially resisted calls to apologize to institutionalized children and Australian Aborigines, arguing that contemporary Australians should not take responsibility for mistakes made by past generations.
Rudd reversed the policy after he was elected in 2007 and apologized to Aborigines for 200 years of injustice since European settlement.
At a ceremony Monday in Canberra that hundreds of former child migrants are expected to attend, Rudd will apologize for his country's role in the migration and say sorry to the 7,000 survivors of the program who still live in Australia.
He also will apologize to the Australian children — more than 500,000, according to a 2004 Australian Senate report — who were placed in foster homes, orphanages and other institutions during the 20th century. Many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused in state care.
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