Successive post-war governments played ‘central role’ in abuse suffered by child migrants

Former child migrants who were exposed to sexual violence and other threats during a “fundamentally flawed” overseas settlement policy should be offered financial compensation by the Government, a report has concluded.

Britain’s child migration programmes saw thousands, many in care or from poor backgrounds, sent to countries including Australia and New Zealand, partly to save money on care costs.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that successive UK governments, which played a “central role” in the policy after World War Two, “failed to ensure that there were in place sufficient measures to protect children from sexual abuse”.

The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown formally apologised on behalf of the Government in 2010 for the programmes and later gave evidence to the inquiry, the first major domestic investigation into the abuse claims.

Led by Professor Alexis Jay, the panel examined the programmes as part of a broader investigation into the protection of children outside of the UK.

It published its first major report of findings after holding two sets of public evidence sessions last year.

The 162-page document said it was “essential” that all living former migrants – around 2,000 people – are offered financial redress promptly. Around 4,000 children in total were migrated post-war.

It said: “HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) was, over many years, the institution primarily responsible for the post-war child migration programmes.”

It went on: “However we have found that post-war child migration was a fundamentally flawed policy and that HMG failed to ensure that there were in place sufficient measures to protect children from sexual abuse (as well as other forms of abuse and neglect).”

It continued: “HMG has not yet made any financial redress directly to individual former child migrants.

“Most former migrants have died. This means that in many cases HMG has missed its opportunity to offer redress to those who were affected by its failure.

“However, around 2,000 migrants are alive today, and the panel considers it essential that all surviving former child migrants are offered such redress.”

The inquiry panel called on the Government to establish a “redress scheme” that should provide an equal award to every applicant, as it concluded all were exposed to the risk of sexual abuse.

Such measures should be introduced “without delay” and payments should begin within 12 months, it added.

The report said: “We are keen to ensure that the scheme is a simple one, in the hope that it can be effective soon, and make a real, immediate and lasting difference to the lives of the former child migrants.”

More than 100,000 British youngsters, some as young as two, were shipped abroad under programmes as far back as the 19th century.

The Government took over primary responsibility for the policy after the Second World War.

So-called “sending institutions” responsible for moving the children included local authorities, charities such as Barnardo’s and religious orders.

The policy was justified as a means of slashing the costs of caring for lone children, meeting labour shortages in the colonies, while populating them with white settlers and providing disadvantaged young people with a fresh start, the inquiry said.

Victims of abuse previously told the inquiry how they were left at schools and farms where sexual abuse was rife and suffered ritual mistreatment.

In Thursday’s report, the inquiry also demanded that other organisations involved in implementing the policy apologised to child migrants if they had not already done so.

Inquiry hears harrowing accounts of abuse

Harrowing accounts of sexual abuse suffered by child migrants were heard by Alexis Jay’s inquiry, with one victim saying it was “better described as torture”.

Former migrants gave evidence to the inquiry, sometimes anonymously, about their mistreatment.

In its report into the Government-backed programmes, the inquiry panel said: “Many witnesses described ‘care’ regimes which included physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, as well as sexual abuse, in the various settings to which they were sent.

“Some described constant hunger, medical neglect and poor education, the latter of which had, in several instances, lifelong consequences.

“By any standards of child care, then or at the present time, all of this was wrong.”

One cruel episode at the Clontarf institution in Australia saw a pet horse killed in front of around 15 children as a form of “collective punishment for alleged wrongdoing”, the report said.

Another former migrant said he was locked in a place known as “the dungeon” in one school, where he was left without food or water for days.

He told the hearing his treatment was “better described as torture than abuse”, according to the report.

A different victim lost an eye when he was refused medical treatment during an overseas placement, while others were forced to undertake back-breaking construction projects.

The report concluded: “It is the overwhelming conclusion of the inquiry that the institution primarily to blame for the continued existence of the child migration programmes after the Second World War was Her Majesty’s Government.

“This was a deeply flawed policy, as HMG now accepts.

“It was badly executed by many voluntary organisations and local authorities, but was allowed by successive British governments to remain in place, despite a catalogue of evidence which showed that children were suffering ill treatment and abuse, including sexual abuse.

“The policy in itself was indefensible and HMG could have decided to bring it to an end, or mitigated some of its effects in practice by taking action at certain points, but it did not do so.”

Many reports on child migration were available from the 1940s onwards, the inquiry found, but little was done to halt it until 1970.

One former migrant, Michael O’Donoghue, was placed in the care of Nazareth House in Romsey, Hampshire in the 1940s, where he suffered sexual abuse.

He was eventually sent to Australia in 1953 where he was put up at the Clontarf institution.

The report said: “In terms of physical abuse, on only his second day, he was beaten for wetting the bed, and the children were told that if any complaints against the (Christian) Brothers got out, they would be flogged.

“The Brothers also organised boxing matches between the children, and selected older boys were given total authority to beat the younger ones.”

Mr O’Donoghue told the inquiry that “animals were fed better than the children who resorted to getting scraps out of the bins”.

He was later sexually abused by several men, including a theatre manager and a man named as Brother Murphy, who was described as a “sadistic paedophile”.

He told the panel: “I have lived a lifetime without identity and borne the terrible legacy of being a British child who was abandoned by my country.”

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