VULNERABLE British children shipped overseas in a long-running migration programme were exposed to ‘unacceptable depravity’ including torture, sexual abuse and slavery, an inquiry has heard.
Thousands of children, many of whom were in care or from deprived backgrounds, were relocated to distant corners of the British empire over hundreds of years.
A case study of the ‘shameful history’ is being examined in the first public evidence session of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, focusing on the post-war period.
The far-reaching probe, which has been beset by criticism and delays, is to scrutinise 13 institutions, ranging from local authorities to the army, for child protection failings.
Today it was claimed the UK government was complicit in the ‘systematic and institutional problem’ of abuse spawned by the migration scheme.
The government accepted the resettlement ‘should not have been sanctioned or facilitated’, the inquiry heard.
The taxpayer-subsidised scheme oversaw more than 100,000 British youngsters, some as young as two, settled in countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It was justified as a means of slashing the costs of caring for lone children, meeting labour shortages in the colonies, while populating them with white settlers and providing disadvantaged young people with a fresh start, the hearing was told.
One former child migrant broke down as he recalled the ‘endemic’ problem of sexual abuse at Fairbridge Farm School in Molong, Australia.
David Hill said: ‘Many never recover and are permanently afflicted with guilt, shame, diminished self-confidence, low self-esteem and trauma.
‘We will never be able to undo the great wrong done to these children but what is important to survivors of sexual abuse is, where this inquiry is satisfied with the evidence, to name the villains.’
Australia was the destination for the majority of the children after the Second World War, where more than 3,000 were sent between 1947 and 1965.
At the start of the hearing, counsel to the inquiry Henrietta Hill QC said: ‘In those institutions or schools, child migrants have given evidence they were subject to extremely harsh conditions, hard labour and physical abuse by those responsible for their welfare.
‘In addition, there are allegations of widespread and systematic sexual abuse taking place in those institutions, or some of them.
‘You are likely to hear very emotional accounts from former child migrants of the decades of pain they have caused.
‘The UK government provided partial funding for the child migration scheme, approved the residential institutions and was responsible for consenting to the migration of children sent from local authority care.’
The inquiry is the first major domestic investigation into the abuse claims, following an apology to child migrants from prime minister Gordon Brown in 2010.
Aswini Weereratne, of the Child Migrants Trust said: ‘It is impossible to resist the conclusion that some of what was done there was of quite unacceptable depravity. Terms like sexual abuse are too weak to convey it.
‘This was not about truly voluntary migration, but forced or coerced deportation.’
The abuse that some of the children sent abroad were said to have suffered included ‘torture, rape and slavery’, Ms Weereratne said.
The child migration programmes are a case study which is part of the inquiry’s protection of children outside the United Kingdom investigation.
Speaking on behalf of former child migrant Oliver Cosgrove, who was sent to Australia in 1941, Imran Khan said: ‘Those who were abused tried in vain to tell others, who they hoped and believed might assist them. But they didn’t.
‘The fact that they knew and the fact that they didn’t do anything and the fact that the witness statements are so similar in the accounts they give of abuse can mean only one thing: this was a systematic and institutional problem.’
Samantha Leek QC, appearing on behalf of the Government, said: ‘Child migration is wrong. It should not have been sanctioned or facilitated by the Government.
‘Knowing what we know today, it is hard to believe that a policy of child migration could have been justified in any way by the welfare needs of the children involved.
‘The lifelong consequences for those involved are a matter of deep and sincere regret.’
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: Key questions
What is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA)?
The inquiry was launched to examine the extent to which institutions and organisations in England and Wales have taken seriously their responsibility to protect children, and it will investigate a wide range of institutions.
What is the inquiry’s remit?
Thirteen different investigative strands spanning several decades and examining a host of different institutions are being pursued by the inquiry. The inquiry will investigate a wide range of institutions including local authorities, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Immigration Service, the BBC, the armed forces, schools, hospitals, children’s homes, churches, mosques and other religious organisations, charities and voluntary organisations, regulators and other public and private institutions.
What are the 13 strands?
The 13 investigations are: Allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster; the Roman Catholic Church; the Anglican Church; the internet; residential schools; Nottinghamshire councils; Lambeth Council; Lord Janner; protection of children outside the UK; sexual abuse of children in custodial institutions; child sexual exploitation by organised networks; Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale, and accountability and reparations for victims and survivors of abuse.
Who is in charge?
Professor Alexis Jay was appointed chairman of the inquiry by the Home Secretary in August 2016. She is a former senior social worker who came to prominence when she led an inquiry that exposed the shocking scale of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. Brian Altman QC, a leading barrister, is the inquiry’s most senior lawyer.
Where is the inquiry based?
The inquiry has offices across England and Wales to reflect the geographical span of its work. These are located in Liverpool, Darlington, Cardiff and Exeter.
How long is it expected to last?
Professor Jay has said she plans to make recommendations in an interim report in 2018 and spoke of her determination to make ‘substantial progress’ by 2020. However, no final completion date has been given for what is the largest public inquiry ever established in the UK. There have been suggestions it could last for up to a decade, costing tens of millions of pounds.