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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child Migration Programmes Investigation Report

1. A brief history of child migration

1. Child migration can be traced back to 1618 when poor children were sent to the American colonies as apprentices. Professors Constantine and Lynch provided us with a full historical overview of the child migration programmes.[1] They explained that child migrants, namely those who migrated abroad without their parents, are generally considered to be those under school-leaving age (then 14). Those between 14 and 18 are generally referred to as ‘juvenile’ or ‘youth’ migrants. Age five was sometimes regarded as a minimum but there are numerous examples of younger children being migrated. Many child migrants were described as ‘orphans’ but did in fact have one or both parents alive.[2]

2. Over time, particular individuals established specific migration programmes: for example, Captain Brenton set up the Children’s Friend Society sending children to South Africa, and Annie Macpherson and Maria Rye set up a child migration scheme to Canada. Voluntary societies such as Barnardo’s, the Quarrier Homes, the National Children’s Home (NCH), the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society and the Fairbridge Society also became involved, as did the Catholic Church. The rationales for migration varied but in summary they included humanitarian claims to be rescuing children from poor and unsuitable environments and providing them with new opportunities overseas, imperialist plans to consolidate the white, Anglo-Saxon population in imperial territories, [and] religious concerns with safeguarding children’s Catholic faith or ensuring that a particular denomination was well represented amongst imperial settlers.[3] Child migration was also considered to be more cost effective than keeping children in residential homes in Britain (although we have doubts about whether that was actually correct).[4]

3. By far the largest number of child migrants, around 90,000, went to Canada from the 1860s.[5] After 1924, children were only migrated to institutional care in Canada, indeed only to the Prince of Wales Farm School in British Columbia where 329 children were sent.[6]

4. Post-War child migration to New Zealand involved the Royal Overseas League sending around 549 children into foster care.[7]

5. From 1947 to 1965, eight approved organisations migrated a total of 3,170 children to Australia. The peak years for child migration to Australia were 1947 and 1950 to 1955. Around 400 children in total were sent by local authorities, a small percentage of the total number of children in local authority care. Overall, the number migrated to Australia during this time fell well short of the 50,000 unaccompanied children whom the Australian Commonwealth Government had planned to receive immediately Post-War. The Inquiry heard expert evidence about the enthusiasm of the Australian authorities to use child migration to increase the white population (and therefore labour capacity and future prospects for the economy) in Australia. This was heightened during World War II: Australian authorities were anxious about the vulnerability of a large country with low density population to military threat from the north. The catchphrase of ‘populate or perish’ came to drive Australian immigration policy.[8]

6. Post-War child migration to Southern Rhodesia involved 276 children being sent to the Rhodesia Fairbridge Memorial College.[9]

7. Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) played a central role in child migration. Initially, children sent abroad by the Poor Law institutions had been funded by local ratepayers, and the voluntary societies that also migrated children were entirely dependent on donations from charitable appeals. The latter advertised the benefits of migration and variously obtained the endorsement of high-status clerical, political and other prominent figures, including members of the Royal Family.[10] The Empire Settlement Act 1922 (ESA) provided for HMG financial support for the programmes (save for the New Zealand one[11]). HMG funding paid for the cost of the children’s journeys and a maintenance element until they were 16, and this financial support by HMG provided further public endorsement for the programmes.[12] The ESA was renewed in 1937, 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967, and then expired in 1972. There are some concerns about whether all the funding was indeed spent on childcare: for example, when inspecting Tardun, Western Australia, in 1942, Sir Ronald Cross observed that he could not understand where the money was going, given the poor clothing the boys were wearing.[13] HMG was also responsible for the regulatory and supervisory framework within which child migration operated, although that framework was limited.

8. Of the voluntary ‘sending’ organisations, most, if not all, had been involved in pre‑Second World War (‘pre-War’) migration. They were one of the following:

a. Child welfare organisations (charities or religious orders) providing residential institutions for children in the UK, in which child migration formed a relatively small part of their work; 

b. Organisations that had a remit solely of migration (of both adults and children/ juveniles); or

c. Organisations solely concerned with child migration.

9. Some organisations, such as Fairbridge and Barnardo’s, operated as both sending and receiving institutions within the same overall administrative structure, whereas some sending institutions had more informal relationships with particular receiving institutions.

10. Some organisations, such as the Catholic Child Welfare Council (CCWC) and the Church of England Advisory Council for Empire Settlement (CEACES), operated as “hubs or convenors for wider organisations or networks”.[14]

11. In respect of Australia, some of the programmes, including those operated by the Anglican and Catholic churches, used a ‘group nomination’ system, whereby a residential institution in Australia would send a request for a certain number or gender of children for migration.[15] It has been suggested by Professors Constantine and Lynch that this raises a question about whether some decisions about migration were based on institutional need rather than the welfare of the children, and we agree that this question arises. Some of the evidence we considered about these systems is resonant of the children being considered as ‘commodities’ to be transferred, not as individuals in need of care.

12. Post-migration, legal guardianship for the child would transfer to the national government of Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Southern Rhodesia and then to the provincial/state government, more particularly their child welfare departments. In practice, responsibility then devolved to the particular institution’s staff.[16] 

13. As we describe further below, child migration was never entirely uncontroversial: reports as far back as the 1800s expressed significant criticisms of it, while HMG officials, especially those within the Home Office, became increasingly uncomfortable with the practice. They sought to educate those within the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) and the voluntary organisations as to the methods of care to adopt. From 1951, they engaged with the latter on issues of care through the Council of Voluntary Organisations for Child Emigration (CVOCE).[17]

14. Nevertheless, reports were received that were extremely critical of the conditions in the receiving homes, leading to a 1956 ‘blacklist’ of institutions to which it was felt children should not be migrated. This is unsurprising to us: time and again the witnesses have told us of their experiences as child migrants of not only sexual abuse but also physical abuse; emotional cruelty; a denial of adequate food, education and medical treatment; and of being required to perform extremely harsh manual labour.

15. Ultimately, however, ‘high politics’ won: we accept the experts’ analysis that the British government was “reluctant to upset the Australian government and such highly regarded philanthropic operators as Barnardo’s and Fairbridge by refusing to renew funding agreements with the voluntary societies” and so continued with providing funding for and supporting child migration until 1972, in the face of the concerns.[18] Dr Humphreys characterised the history as one of repeated “missed opportunities” to remedy the appalling treatment many child migrants were receiving.[19] We consider this to be an entirely accurate assessment.

16. The Fairbridge Society’s Canadian school closed after lengthy wrangles with the local childcare professionals, as discussed further in the Fairbridge section in Part C. As the UK economy improved from the 1950s, fewer children came into the voluntary societies’ care.[20] The experts’ understanding was that Australian child migration ended “when the remaining voluntary childcare societies could no longer recruit children to send or no longer wished to do so. Very likely, due to changes in welfare support for families, more children in need were being contained and supported in their natural families or were being fostered or adopted, and the number of children needing anything but temporary institutional care diminished”.[21]

17. We have seen no evidence that migration ended specifically because HMG decided to put a stop to it. The last child was migrated to Australia in 1970. Most if not all of those children who had been migrated remained within their receiving institution, despite the concerns that had been raised about the appalling conditions in which many of them were accommodated.[22]

18. Many, but not all, of the institutions involved in child migration have apologised for their role in it, some more fulsomely than others, and some for the first time in evidence before us.

19. Witnesses told us of their experiences of brutalising regimes that involved physical and sexual abuse, poor living conditions, poor health care, and poor medical and educational provision. It is important, when considering the incidents of child sexual abuse, that we appreciate the full range of appalling conditions in which these children lived. This broader context of their lives is included in this report.

20. We turn now to a summary of the experiences of child migrants of sexual abuse.





  1. Constantine and Lynch, 27 February 2017 80-161; EWM000005; EWM000178; EWM000229; EWM000370; EWM000402. Relevant parts of these reports have been referred to herein as appropriate.
  2. Constantine 27 February 2017 84-91; 98.
  3. Constantine 27 February 2017 121-122.
  4. Constantine 27 February 2017 93-105; 121-122; 111-113.
  5. Constantine 27 February 2017 92; 105-108.
  6. Constantine 27 February 2017 92; 105-108; 110.
  7. Constantine 27 February 2017 108-110.
  8. Constantine 27 February 2017, 111-114; EWM000005_025, [2.2.8].
  9. Constantine 27 February 2017 113-121; Lynch 10 March 2017 24-25. It is also important to note for the wider context that unaccompanied child migrants made up less than 1% of the total number of children who migrated to Australia, as large numbers migrated with their families: Lynch 10 March 2017 26.
  10. For some examples of these advertisements see Constantine 10 March 2017 2-7.
  11. Under this programme the New Zealand Government paid for the passage of the children and once they were in New Zealand and provided financial support to them once they arrived: Lynch 10 March 2017 17-18; Constantine 10 March 2017 23.
  12. The Australian Commonwealth Government also provided a regular maintenance payment. Financial input from the different Australian states varied, but there was not necessarily a correlation between higher state funding and better conditions of care: Lynch 10 March 2-18; 36-37; 46-55.
  13. On this and other funding issues see Lynch 21 July 2017 99-120.
  14. Lynch 9 March 2017 123-131.
  15. Lynch 10 March 2017 57-59.
  16. Lynch 9 March 2017 132-138; 10 March 2017 36.
  17. See, for example, the minutes of the CVOCE meeting on 11 July 1951 (AFC000014_034), at which the Home Office welcomed the chance for a dialogue with the Council.
  18. Constantine 27 February 2017 153-156 and 10 March 2017 91-92; 108-112; Lynch 10 March 2017 29-30 and 21 July 2017 121-125; CMT000366_001.
  19. Humphreys 21 July 2017 7-21.
  20. Humphreys 23 July 2017 151-152.
  21. Constantine 27 February 2017 156-157.
  22. Constantine 10 March 2017 112-113.
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