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Child migration programmes investigation revisited

25 January 2021

This year the Inquiry is highlighting a different report each month

In 2017 the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse held 20 days of hearings into the Child Migration Programmes, which took children from care or from their families in England and Wales and placed them in institutions or with families abroad.  

We heard from experts and witnesses, including former child migrants who gave moving and distressing accounts of the horrific abuse they experienced as a result of being migrated abroad. Many more offered their testimony via witnesses statements that were read out during the hearing. The Inquiry also heard from people representing the institutions and organisations that had removed children for nearly 100 years, including government departments, public authorities and private and charitable organisations. The organisations who took part in the programme included Barnardos, The Children’s Society, the Fairbridge Society and the Salvation Army. 

The children were systematically and permanently migrated to parts of the British Empire including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with the knowledge and approval of successive British governments. In 2010, the British Government issued an apology for its role in the programmes. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who issued that apology) was called to give evidence, as was former PM Sir John Major.  

The Inquiry heard from witnesses about the brutality faced by children - the sadistic killing of a beloved pet horse as a collective punishment, sexual abuse committed by those entrusted with the care of these children, horrific physical abuse that included severe beatings and electric shocks.  

One witness told the Inquiry that he was regularly caned for wetting the bed and was constantly hungry. He also described being thrown down the stairs and suffering a serious head injury. He was sexually abused by a male teacher who would come into the dormitory during the night and rape him, or take him to an isolated area and abuse him there. This happened every week for a year.

The last child to be migrated was sent to Australia in 1970. The public hearing found no evidence that the practice was stopped because the government thought it was wrong; rather it was stopped, at least in part, because the “supply” of children had dried up. 

Inquiry chair Professor Alexis Jay said: 

“Child migration was a deeply flawed government policy that was badly implemented by numerous organisations which sent children as young as five years old abroad.

“Successive British governments failed to ensure there were sufficient measures in place to protect children from all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse. The policy was allowed to continue despite evidence over many years showing that children were suffering.”

In March 2018, the Inquiry published the investigation report into the Child Migration Programmes which contained three recommendations:  

Recommendations and responses

Financial redress 

On 22 July 2019, the UK Government confirmed  that the Department of Health and Social Care had made over 1,400 payments to eligible former British child migrants under the ex-gratia payment scheme. 

Further institutional apologies

Twelve institutions involved with the Child Migration Programmes published or issued apologies on their websites - the full list can be found here

The preservation of child migrants’ records 

Nine institutions assured the Inquiry of their continued commitment to ensuring all former child migrants would be given assistance to access their records.

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