Skip to main content

0800 917 1000 Open weekdays 8am-8pm, Saturdays 10am-12pm

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child Migration Programmes Investigation Report

Executive Summary

Over a period of many years before and after the Second World War, successive United Kingdom governments allowed children to be removed from their families, care homes and foster care in England and Wales to be sent to institutions or families abroad, without their parents. These child migrants were sent mainly to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Government departments, public authorities and charities participated in these child migration programmes and were responsible, to varying degrees, for what subsequently happened to the children. Post-war, around 4,000 children were migrated, mostly to Australia.

This report sets out the results of the Inquiry’s investigation into the experiences of child migrants, and the extent to which institutions took sufficient care to protect these children from sexual abuse. The investigation also examined the extent to which the institutions involved knew, or should have known, about the sexual abuse of child migrants and how they have responded to any such knowledge. Finally, it considered the adequacy of support and reparations for sexual abuse, if any, which have been provided by the institutions concerned. Although the focus of the Inquiry is on sexual abuse, the accounts of other forms of abuse provide an essential context for understanding the experiences of child migrants.

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.

A former child migrant said his experiences at one school were “better described as torture than abuse”, saying he was locked in a place known as ‘the dungeon’ without food or water for days. Another told of “backbreaking” work on the building of a new school building. Yet another spoke of the failure to give him medical attention, which resulted in the loss of an eye. In some places, there were persistent beatings of boys and girls, and one witness described how he had tried to kill himself at the age of 12.

In a particularly awful incident, we heard of the sadistic killing of a pet horse loved by the children, which a group of 15 children were forced to watch as a form of collective punishment for an alleged wrongdoing. This incident took place during what was known as a ‘Special Punishment Day’ at Clontarf (one of the institutions to which child migrants were sent). This epitomised the brutal and brutalising environment in which many child migrants lived.

We heard that there were few, if any, means of reporting abuse and children lived in fear of reprisals if they did so. They were disbelieved and intimidated, often with violence. One witness was told to ‘pray’ for her abuser, with no further action being taken on the abuse. Another was told not to tell anyone when he reported that he had been raped.

For some children, one of the most devastating aspects of their experience was being lied to about their family background, and even about whether their parents were alive or dead. This had a lifelong impact, including on their physical and mental well-being and their ability to form relationships. This problem was made worse by some institutions which failed to keep records properly, or lost records, effectively robbing these children of their identity. The effects of this carelessness and poor practice cannot be overestimated.

The agencies involved in ‘sending’ children in the migration programmes were mostly voluntary organisations, with a small number being migrated by local authorities. Some organisations, such as the Fairbridge Society and Barnardo’s, operated as both sending and receiving institutions, providing schools and homes in the country of migration. Others migrated children to institutions run by other organisations. From evidence available to the Inquiry, there was a sense in which these children were treated by some of the sending institutions as ‘commodities’ with one institution even referring to its ‘requisition’ for a specific number of children to be sent to Australia.

Many of the voluntary organisations involved failed in their duty to exercise proper monitoring or aftercare, having dispatched children, in some cases as young as 5, to the other side of the world. Although some (such as the Fairbridge Society) had in place a form of post-migration monitoring, these were not robust systems, and some (such as the Sisters of Nazareth, when migrating to Christian Brothers institutions) had no post-migration monitoring system at all.

Some organisations responded better than others to allegations or evidence of sexual abuse when these were made known to them: for example, Barnardo’s suspended migration when evidence of sexual abuse emerged at its Picton school in Australia, whereas the Fairbridge Society failed to respond appropriately to a series of such allegations at its schools in both Canada and Australia.

Nevertheless, 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 (HMG). 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 key points, but it did not do so.

For example, the Inquiry struggled to understand why HMG imposed a formal legal process for consent to migrate children in the care of a local authority (via the Home Office) yet did not apply the same rules to the migration of children being sent abroad by voluntary organisations.

Another example involves the response of HMG to the Curtis Committee report in 1946 in respect of child migrants. The Curtis report was a defining moment in the history of child care in the UK. It set out clear expectations for future child care practice and was explicit in its expectations of the care to be given to child migrants. It effectively proposed a presumption against migration, stressing that the needs of individual children must be paramount. Its recommendations were accepted by HMG, and the Home Office became responsible for implementation in respect of child migrants. A memorandum was drafted, demonstrating the Home Office’s detailed expectations of care for migrated children, which should be “on the same level” as that proposed for the United Kingdom. While this was laudable, no formal accountability was required of sending agencies. No meaningful action appeared to be taken by the Home Office to ensure that the sending agencies made efforts to implement the memorandum or indeed the agreements later reached with the agencies. 

Many reports on child migration were available to HMG during the 1950s. Perhaps the most significant was the Ross report (1956). Ross visited 26 out of 39 institutions in Australia to which British child migrants were sent. The reports on many of these places were extremely critical. The conditions at several of them were judged to be so bad that they were put on a ‘blacklist’ and regarded as not fit to receive any more child migrants. Still, HMG did nothing effective to protect the children.

We concluded that the main reason for HMG’s failure to act was the politics of the day, which were consistently prioritised over the welfare of children. HMG was reluctant to jeopardise relations with the Australian government by withdrawing from the scheme, and also to upset philanthropic organisations such as Barnardo’s and the Fairbridge Society. Many such organisations enjoyed patronage from persons of influence and position, and it is clear that in some cases the avoidance of embarrassment and reputational risk was more important than the institutions’ responsibilities towards migrated children.

We understand that the last child was migrated to Australia in 1970. We have seen no evidence that migration ended because HMG decided it was wrong. It appears to have stopped at least in part because the “supply” of suitable children dried up. Increasing numbers of childcare professionals rejected the scheme on moral and ethical grounds, confirming a position held by most local authorities since the Curtis report. A small number of voluntary organisations withdrew at a relatively early stage. Others more actively involved eventually followed suit.

The Inquiry concluded that several governments after 1970 failed to accept full responsibility for HMG’s role in child migration. Sir John Major publicly stated that he “was aware that there were allegations of physical and sexual abuse of a number of child migrants some years ago, but that any such allegations would be a matter for the Australian authorities”. This reflected a policy position that was maintained throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2010, Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, publicly apologised to former child migrants on behalf of HMG and established the Family Restoration Fund.

Many, but not all, of the voluntary and public institutions involved in child migration have apologised for their role in it, some more fully than others, and some for the first time in their evidence given to this Inquiry. Any comprehensive scheme of reparations for child migrants should include apology and acknowledgement, support and financial redress. Some of the institutions concerned have addressed some of these aspects, but we are not aware of any scheme which addresses all of them.

We have made a small number of recommendations, focusing on the need for HMG to institute immediately a financial redress scheme for surviving child migrants.

Back to top