Australia Apologizes for Long-Ago Migrant Program That Shipped Children From Britain to Colonies
November 16, 2009 - 5:44 AMPrime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a historic apology Monday to thousands of impoverished British children shipped to Australia with the promise of a better life, only to suffer abuse and neglect thousands of miles from home.
At a ceremony in the Australian capital of Canberra attended by tearful former child migrants, Rudd apologized for his country's role in the migration and extended condolences to the 7,000 survivors of the program who still live in Australia.
"We are sorry," Rudd said. "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."
The apology comes one day after the British government said Prime Minister Gordon Brown would apologize for child migrant programs that sent as many as 150,000 poor British children as young as 3 to Australia, Canada and other former colonies over three and a half centuries.
The programs, which ended 40 years ago, were intended to provide the children with a new start -- and the Empire with a supply of sturdy white workers. But many children ended up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused, or were sent to work as farm laborers.
Rudd also apologized to the "forgotten Australians" -- children who suffered in state care during the last century. According to a 2004 Australian Senate report, more than 500,000 children were placed in foster homes, orphanages and other institutions during the 20th century. Many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused in state care.
Some in the audience wept openly and held each other as Rudd shared painful stories of children he'd spoken with -- children who were beaten with belt buckles and bamboo, who grew up in places they called "utterly loveless."
"Let us resolve this day that this national apology becomes a turning point in our nation's story," Rudd said. "A turning point for shattered lives, a turning point for governments at all levels and of every political hue and color to do all in our power to never allow this to happen again."
At that, the audience erupted into loud cheers and applause.
John Hennessey, 72, of Campbelltown, 40 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Sydney, struggles to make himself understood through a stutter -- a never-healing scar from a thrashing he received from an Australian orphanage headmaster 60 years ago.
Hennessey was only 6 when he was shipped from a British orphanage to an institute for boys in the country town of Bindoon in Western Australia state.
At 12, he was stripped naked and nearly beaten to death by the headmaster for eating grapes he had taken from a vineyard without permission because he was hungry.
"What terrified me most was that in my mind I thought: 'That's my father. What's he doing?' -- I had nobody else and he was the one I'd looked up to," Hennessey said. "Before that I didn't have a stutter. I've sought medical advice since and they've said, 'John, you're going to take that to the grave with you.'"
After the apology, an emotional Hennessey approached Rudd with a photograph of his late mother May Mary Hennessey, whom he was reunited with in England in 1999 as a guest of the British government when she was 86.
"I can't believe it, mate, I'm still shaking," Hennessey told The Associated Press. "But the one I'm waiting for is the British apology. That's the icing on the cake."
The Forgotten Australians also welcomed the apology. Rod Braydon, 65, said he was raped at the age of six by a Salvation Army officer on his first night in a boys home in the city of Melbourne.
"When we reported this as kids, we were flogged to within an inch of our lives, locked up in dungeons and isolation cells," said Braydon, who has received a cash settlement from the Salvation Army for the abuse and is suing the Victoria state government for neglect.
British High Commissioner Valerie Amos said that while the Australian government had ruled out paying compensation, her government had not yet decided that issue.
She declined to say which government was more to blame for the children's suffering.
"This is a matter of us all acknowledging that we need to say `sorry' for what was a terrible period in our history," Amos told reporters.
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."
Australia had an immigration policy that favored British and white immigrants until the 1970s.
"We were used as white fodder," Hennessey said. "The Archbishop met us at Fremantle (in Western Australia) and I can still remember his words. He said, 'Welcome to Australia. We want white stock because we're terrified of the yellow peril.'"
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless reported from London.
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