Thousands of British children sent to populate Australia in what was later described as “one of the most disgraceful periods in post-war politics” will be given an official apology from the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Canberra today.
Gordon Brown will also try to make amends to the young Britons who were shipped to several former colonies including Canada.
Britain's Prime Minister is expected to stop short of an official apology, say Downing Street sources, but will indicate that talks will be held with groups representing the victims with a view to an official apology later.
Today's Canberra statement will be delivered to more than 7,000 child migrants who suffered widespread abuse and neglect in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr Rudd will also say sorry to more than 500,000 so-called “forgotten Australians”, many of whom suffered similarly in state care.
The director of the Child Migrants' Trust, Margaret Humphries, which offers specialist counselling and family reunion services, described the apology as “really welcome”. She indicated that she hoped the next step would be financial compensation.
Until now child migrants who were sent to New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have had no access to redress. Jenny Macklin, Australia’s Federal Minister for Families, Housing and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, described today's ceremony as a “chance for all of us together (all Australians) to say that we are sorry it happened — and we will never let this happen again”.
In 2007 the harsh reality of conditions was exposed in the BBC documentary Children of the Empire, which catalogued six decades of suffering.
Many leading charities such as Barnardo's and the Fairbridge Society were alleged to have known of the appaling living conditions at the time but did little to improve the situation.
The Christian Brothers, who were later accused of sexually abusing and undernourishing their charges, were singled out for particular criticism. One young Briton who made the sad passage Down Under, John Hennessy, later became the deputy mayor of Campbelltown, on the outskirts of Sydney.
He was among 147 boys and girls who set sail from England on the SS Asturias in 1947. Several weeks and 12,000 miles later he disembarked at Fremantle in Western Australia and was sent to a Christian Brothers institution called Bindoon. Mr Hennessy still remembers every word of the speech delivered by the Archbishop of Perth at the time. “He said ‘welcome you to Australia. We need you for white stock'.”
Bindoon was not so much a school as a labour camp. Years later the Christian Brothers officially apologised and paid compensation totalling more than £1m to 250 child migrants who had been abused.
But the money meant little to those whose young lives had been ruined by insensitive governments on opposite sides of the world. An apology may go some way in expunging that lack of care.