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Face up to the shadows of welfare

10 October 2014

Churches need to acknowledge their faults in child-migration schemes, says Gordon Lynch

Shipped away: child migrants on the way to Australia in 1947

Shipped away: child migrants on the way to Australia in 1947

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 lasting skills.

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 their care.

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 Settlement.

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 operating.

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 child-migration schemes.

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.

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