The British government has rejected a “children at risk” scheme that would have changed the lives of some of Syria’s thousands of refugees.
Up to 3,000 Syrian and other child refugees from camps in the Middle East and North Africa were to have been resettled in Britain over the next four years. Cynics questioned the motivation behind the scheme; others simply applauded. It would have protected vulnerable and refugee “children at risk” and their families.
That the British government might have taken this action was good news and – whatever the reasons behind the move – a sign that it had not entirely lost its moral bearings. At the same time there was an element of bitter irony.
On 9 July 1987, The Observer published a long article entitled “Lost Children of the Empire”, written by the journalist Annabel Ferriman. It was about “a little known episode in British colonial history: the despatch to Australia of thousands of abandoned or orphaned children in the hope of giving them a new start.”
Between 1947 and 1967, around 7,000 children – some as young as three years old – were forcibly resettled under a scheme contrived by the government. To get them to comply, children were either not told anything or that their parents had died. Parents, in turn, were told that their children had been placed for adoption elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The children were deported without documentation and often not knowing where they were going.
Child migrants were sent to Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia, but it was the wave of deportees shipped to Australia during the late 1940s and 1950s who suffered the harshest treatment. Many were sent to institutions in the remote outback where they worked as agricultural and domestic slaves. Many suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse. Their banishment eerily echoed the country’s origins as a penal settlement.
Child migration was instigated for a variety of motives, none of which prioritized the needs of the children involved. They were simply viewed as a convenient source of cheap labour on Canada’s farms, as a means of boosting Australia’s post-war population, and as a way of bolstering a white, managerial elite in former Rhodesia. Certain groups of children were excluded as countries would not accept, for example, physically handicapped or black children.
This disgraceful history was recounted in the Granada Television documentary The Lost Children of the Empire screened in 1989 and later broadcast in Australia; in Margaret Humphreys’ harrowing book Empty Cradles (1994); and in the film Oranges and Sunshine (2011). All three highlighted the callous disregard for the children’s human rights, the horrendous injustices they suffered, and the total loss of their identities. Many never saw their parents again.
In 1998, a British Parliamentary Select Committee published a report criticizing the child migration policy in general and, in particular, certain Roman Catholic institutions in Western Australia and Queensland where child migrants were housed and abused. That same year the Western Australian Legislative Assembly passed a motion apologizing to former child migrants and in 2007 both the Queensland and Western Australia governments announced redress schemes for children abused while in State care.
In 2010, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the country’s role in sending more than 130,000 children to former colonies where many suffered deprivation and abuse. He announced a £6 million fund to reunite families that had been torn apart.
For a short time it looked like Britain might offer to improve its record by taking in child migrants from Syria, some with their families, others alone. Following yesterday’s vote, the children have been thrown back on the high seas of chance. The British government will have a hard time living down a shameful decision that mirrors the callousness of the earlier policy. Heartless does not begin to describe it.