Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday 15 November 2009

Child migrants and the 'apologies'

I've known about the programme to transfer 'British stock' from the UK to Australia, at least partly in support of Australia's 'White Australia' policy at the time, for quite a few years. It always seemed to me to be, when I first heard with incredulity what had been done and made an effort to find out a little more about it, a discreditable period in the history of both the UK and Australia. As I write this, we are just waiting in the next hour for an announcement in Canberra from Australian Prime Minister Rudd, in which he is expected to issue an apology to the migrant children on behalf of the Australian Government and nation. Other countries in the 'white Commonwealth', for example Canada, were also recipients of these children I gather.

It is thought that our own Prime Minister may issue a similar apology on behalf of the British Government and nation in the near future, too. It is possible also that the claims for compensation from some of the now middle-aged to elderly migrants may be granted. It seems clear that at least some of the children were lied to at the time when they were told that their parents had died so there was no home for them to return to; the children involved were I understand almost entirely inhabitants at the time of orphanages in the UK, for various reasons. It is certainly clear that many of the children did not go to the 'better lives' that had been held out to them as their future, but to be treated as little better than indentured labour in low-grade jobs in remote spots of a strange land from which they had no way out; some were also abused in various ways, it seems. The educational opportunities afforded them were also, at best, mediocre in many cases it seems, thus consigning them to the likelihood of limited futures.

I've read in a few blogs today varying opinions about the merits of issuing an apology, mostly negative, on the basis that any apology of this nature is hollow because the present government and Prime Minister is certainly not responsible for what was done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. This is undoubtedly completely true; I don't like Labour or Gordon Brown, but even I would admit readily that it has nothing to do with today's Labour Party or our current Prime Minister persnally. Any more than Australian PM Kevin Rudd can in any way be considered responsible at a personal level, nor can the present Australian government.

Some recent apologies issued in various countries have indeed been largely meaningless, because they touched on matters which are now so far back in history that no one living today has any personal memory of the activities for which the apologies were being issued - for example slavery in the US, or the treatment of some native Americans by the US government.

However, many of the 'victims' of the child migration policy are still very much alive, as are one imagines many of the public and elected officials in both the UK and Australia who were responsible for putting the policy in place, as well I expect as many of those organisations, such as charities in both countries, who were charged with carrying out the policy. So an apology by both governments is not in any way meaningless to those involved, particularly the children affected by the policy. The same might be said of the apology some years ago by the US government in respect of US citizens during World War II who were of Japanese origin and who were, after 'Pearl Harbour', interned by the US authorities; many of the US citizens of Japanese origin were 2nd or 3rd generation US-born.

In summary, my view is that an apology today by Rudd and/or Brown is not a hollow gesture, but a necessary correction of a seriously defective, cruel and fundamentally wicked policy even if in theory it was not totally 'evil' in intent, whilst accepting (as I do) that it was undertaken with motives which rest on somewhat shaky moral ground. Mind you such politically-motivated migrations have occurred often in human history, some in quite recent times (e.g. the encouragement given to Metropolitan French to colonise Algeria when it was under French control, or the similar encoouragement given by the British Government for British citizens to colonise Kenya when it was a British colony. Today there is an even greater ongoing migration of people which has been going on for some years with the migrants concerned being strongly encouraged (not to say shoved on boats and planes) to move - I am speaking about the policy of the Indonesian government to ease the over-population on the island of Java by shipping large numbers of people to the much less densely-populated islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi as well as various other islands in the Indonesian archipelago; Sumatra for example, being much closer to neighbour Malaysia is in theory at risk, over the longer term, of territorial incurson because of its abundant natural resources, as well as of internal political dissension because of the ethnic make-up of its own population. There are many sources of information about this - see here and here for example, not to mention the related potential extraordinary project discussed here.

To come back, though, to the child migration from the UK to Australia I am currently (16NOV 00.15 GMT) watching the live apology from Australian PM Rudd in a large hall before a great number of the affected migrants and their families; a very moving occasion indeed.

Finally, I have absolutely no personal stake in this issue, but ever since I first became aware of this UK-Australia child migration project in the post-war period I have been troubled by some memories from my early childhood. At the first primary school I attended, which was in the Newhaven area of Edinburgh (we, my brother and I, lived in a distant part of Edinburgh, but made the journey across the city each day to attend this school for reaons we needn't go into here) and one of my class-mates and friends from when I first went there (a few months before my 5th birthday) until I was about 7 1/2 was a boy who was an orphan and who lived in a Barnardo's home not far away from the school. Occasionally I would visit the home with him after school (they were apparently encouraged to have friends visit) and as a child I thought no more about it; he was simply a class-mate and someone whom I liked as a school-friend; without being immodest we were probably the two cleverest boys in our class. Anyway, one day he didn't turn up at school and I asked the teacher where he was - she said he had 'gone away'. A few days later I decided to visit the home to ask after him and can still remember (I was less than 8 then) the seeming 'evasion' in the response I got. Of course he may simply have gone back to his real family, but I have occasionally wondered, since I heard about the migration policy sometime in the 1980s, if he might have been one of those involved. I'm afraid I do not even remember my friend's name, so it is unlikely I would ever be able to find out what did happen to him. At the time, of course, I had no real idea of anything to do with such matters - I doubt if I really had any idea about where places I had seen on maps, such as America, Canada, India, South Africa or Australia, were. Happy and generally contented as my childhood was, this is one minor niggle that I occasionally ponder on - today's apology in Australia has brought this whole subject back into my consciousness; the time-frame I am recalling is the period from about mid-1957 to late-1959, so it is certainly within the relevant dates when this policy was in force.


  1. When I lived in Australia, I knew several of these children who had grown to adulthood. One, I recall vividly. For many years, she invited a particular nun to her family gatherings--the only person in her Catholic orphanage who showed her some kindness, and whom she regarded as her only living family. It was heaartbreaking to hear them talk about the routine cruelty. Prosecute the Catholic Church, I say.

  2. Hi Headbang8

    Nice to see you here again :)

    Yes, so-called 'Christians' have a lot to answer for in many instances; the Church may have done a lot of good, but it has done (and is still doing) some evil things, too.

  3. I've read in a few blogs today varying opinions about the merits of issuing an apology, mostly negative, on the basis that any apology of this nature is hollow because the present government and Prime Minister is certainly not responsible for what was done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. This is undoubtedly completely true

    Well said Bill.


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