Don's diary: child migrants' search for justice

January 10, 2003

Saturday

New Orleans is a city waiting for night. It is not only the streetcars that are named desire - the entire French Quarter dissolves into jazz, blues and sex. Sit on the balcony. Below a bluesman strums as gently as the rain.

Sunday

The first International Congress on Child Migration is being held in New Orleans. It is Britain's guilty secret that we used to "export" our children up until the late l960s.

Children in Dr Barnardo's and other homes were told they were orphaned, even though in many cases their mothers were alive. Without parental consent or even knowledge, they were illegally scattered throughout the Commonwealth. Any mother who tried to trace her child was told it was not possible.

The scheme continued until l967 - and so, while England was celebrating the World Cup and listening to The Beatles, the UK government, enthusiastically encouraged by several children's charities, was still exporting children. Despite evidence to the contrary, the charities believed that they were giving these children "a fresh start".

Monday

Meet with some of the child migrants. They have unshakeable dignity and modesty, and the deceptive ease of life in the Quarter contrasts with their profound pain.

Invited to address the international congress on the child's right to identity. To make family tracing impossible, the child migrants'

identities were changed. It is only in the past few years that many of them have found their parents, but for some it is tragically too late.

Unknown to the children, many had parents alive in the UK, which meant that they could not be adopted. Some were fostered, others placed in orphanages, often in underpopulated Western Australia where many were subjected to systematic physical and sexual abuse by the Christian Brothers. Many were exploited as cheap labour, even made to finish building work.

Tuesday

Two of the speakers discuss their research into the reasons behind child exportation: civil servants wished to retain a white British presence in the colonies; Australia wished to replace its war dead and resist Asian "expansion"; and the British Overseas Migration Board believed that if the children remained in the UK they might "become or continue to be a charge upon the rates".

Asked to chair a session in which the Australian senator Andrew Murray, a former child migrant, explains the findings of an Australian inquiry and the consequential failure of legal action, due to a statute of limitation. The role becomes challenging when a member of the Christian Brothers addresses the conference. His tone conveys neither compassion nor apology.

Wednesday

For most of these child immigrants' lives, no one had pieced together this unbelievably cruel migration policy. It was our speakers Margaret and Mervin Humphreys, co-founders of the Child Migrant Trust, who undertook the research and helped to reunite many of the families. Other academics and former child migrants speak of the psychological trauma of rejection, not only by their parents but also by their country.

There is much that needs to be done - not least the need for the charities and the British and Australian governments to cease hiding behind statutes of limitations.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary, University of London, and WP Schreiner professor, University of Cape Town.

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