THE Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Northern Ireland
has been receiving evidence since 1 September from former child
migrants who were sent to Australia through schemes run largely by
Churches, charities, and religious orders. For some witnesses, this
is the first time they have told their stories publicly, revealing
things that they had not even told their own families before. But,
as the weight of testimony grows through the inquiry, a familiar
pattern of experiences is emerging.
These child-migration schemes were originally conceived as
cost-effective ways of giving vulnerable children new opportunities
in British colonies, enabling them to grow into pious and
productive citizens while simultaneously building up the Empire.
Presented as humanitarian interventions into children's lives,
their actual effects were often traumatic. Although serving the
goals of national governments and religious organisations, they
took little or no account of children's emotional lives.
The trauma of migration related, in part, to the institutional
environments in which these children grew up in Australia. In
several such institutions there, sexual and physical abuse was
widespread. Educational standards were often poor, and the use of
children's manual labour served as much to contribute to
institutional running costs as to provide child migrants with any
IN THE majority of cases considered by the inquiry, child migrants
were ten years old or younger when they were sent to Australia;
about a third were seven years old or less. Isolated and
disorientated in a new country, they struggled to understand who
they were, or why they were living in these new places.
Lasting harm was also caused by the break that migration caused
to family bonds. In the cases considered by the inquiry, religious
organisations relocated children in ways that were intended to
create a permanent break from families who had placed children in
Consent for the child's migration to Australia was rarely sought
from their birth families, and their families were given either no
information - or misleading information - about them after
migration had taken place. Child migrants arrived in Australia
often unaware that they still had family members living in the UK,
and began to rediscover these families, often with much difficulty,
only later in their lives.
In one case examined by the inquiry, a former child migrant
began to search for his mother in 1994 with the help of the Child
Migrants Trust, and made repeated, unsuccessful requests to his
sending organisation for any information about her. In 2008, it
emerged that the sending organisation had a document that included
the address of the family farm on which his mother had lived all
her life. Tragically, she had died in 1999.
MOST of the cases being examined by the Northern Ireland inquiry
relate to the work of the Sisters of Nazareth, in collaboration
with other Roman Catholic migration agencies and religious orders.
The shortcomings of these schemes are, however, largely shared by
schemes for child migration which were run within the Church of
England through its Waifs and Strays Society (now the Children's
Society), and the Church of England Council for Empire
Migration schemes formed a well-known part of their work, and
previous Archbishops of Canterbury served as presidents for both
organisations during the periods in which these schemes were
The harm caused by these schemes is increasingly well
recognised. In 2010, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made a
full apology on behalf of the British Government to former child
migrants, which was fully endorsed by David Cameron, who was then
Leader of the Opposition, and by the leader of the Liberal
Democrats, Nick Clegg.
The response of the Church in Britain has been much slower. No
senior religious leader in Britain has offered an apology or
pastoral statement about these migration schemes, despite apologies
and the offering of some plans for redress by Churches and
charities in Australia.
BESIDES public statements of apology, there are practical steps
that the Church can take, including consulting on its response with
groups such as the Child Migrants Trust. In 2010, the British
Government established a Family Restoration Fund, which has made it
possible for former child migrants to make 720 visits from
Australia to renew contact with family members.
Funding is currently available in this scheme only until 2015,
when it is due for review, and the Church should actively support
its renewal. Given the Church's support for the UK Government's
recently announced inquiry into historical sexual abuse, support
should also be given for a wider judicial inquiry into UK
More generally, there is a need for the Church to understand the
shadow side of its welfare interventions in modern times. It is
right for people to argue that the Church's positive contribution
to civil society should be recognised; but so, too, should those
welfare initiatives run by Churches, charities, and religious
orders which hurt those whom they tried or claimed to help.
An awareness of this shadow side needs to enter more deeply into
the Church's understanding of its recent past, and the operation of
its pastoral mission. It is only by bringing the suffering of
former child migrants more into its shared memory that the legacy
of these schemes can be properly faced.
Dr Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern
Theology at the University of Kent in Canterbury.