Britain says sorry to children shipped into misery

LONDON: Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for Britain's role in sending thousands of children to Australia and other former colonies where many suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The Child Migrants Programme, which ended 40 years ago, shipped an estimated 150,000 destitute children to a "better life" in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada but many ended up in institutions or as farm labourers.

Brown said the scheme, which ran from the 1920s to the 1960s, left many people emotionally scarred for life.

"I say today we are truly sorry. They were let down," he said in a statement to parliament.

"We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.

"And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved."

Brown said the participants in the scheme were "robbed" of their childhood.

"The pain of a lost childhood can last a lifetime. Some still bear the marks of abuse; all still live with the consequences of rejection," he added.

A six million pound (9.25 million, 6.8 million euro) fund has been established for the former child migrants.

Children aged between three and 14 were sent from Britain to Commonwealth countries with the promise of a new start, but many were abused in foster homes, orphanages and religious institutions by their supposed carers.

Many were already in institutions in Britain and were often told their parents were dead before they left, while parents were given little information about where their offspring were going.

Former child migrants in Australia Thursday welcomed the apology, but many said it was too little too late.

Hundreds attended official ceremonies across Australia to mark Brown's apology.

"Girls were raped by people they entrusted to care," said Lynda Craig, who was just five when she was removed from her Liverpool family and sent to Fairbridge Farm School in 1955.

Craig, like countless others, grew up falsely believing she was alone in the world after authorities lied to her about her mother dying from cancer.

Carol Walisoliso, who was also shipped to Fairbridge as a 10-year-old, said she was so badly beaten and abused she ran away.

"It is far too late. It should have been a long, long time ago," Walisoliso said of Brown's apology. "They knew about (the suffering) and did nothing."

Harold Haig, secretary of the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, said: "For many former child migrants and their families, the apology will help to heal a painful past."

Margaret Humphreys, director of the Child Migrant Trust, added that "child migrants and their families will now be able to embrace this defining statement ... and move forward after a lifetime of waiting."

Later, Brown met a group of 40 former child migrants who travelled from Australia to hear the apology.

Haig told the prime minister: "We have all been waiting for this day for a lifetime... for us the apology is a moment in history where there can be reconciliation between the government, the nation and the child migrants."

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last year offered his own apology to the thousands of British migrants who were abused or neglected in state care.

The apology echoed Rudd's historic February 2008 apology to Australia's Aboriginal population for their mistreatment since white settlement in 1788.

Britain's High Commissioner to Australia, Baroness Valerie Amos, said in a statement last week the apology would be an "important milestone".

"Over the past few months I have met many whose lives were blighted, and heard their personal stories," she said.

"We want not just to bear witness to the past but to look forward to a future where these terrible events will not be repeated."