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November 15, 2009
LONDON — Britain and Australia are saying sorry to thousands of British children who were promised a better life overseas, only to suffer abuse and neglect thousands of miles from home.
The British government said Sunday that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will apologize for 20th-century child migrant programs that saw thousands of poor British children sent to Australia, Canada and other former colonies until the 1960s. Many ended up in institutions or were sent to work as farm laborers.
Brown's office said officials would consult with representatives of the surviving children before making a formal apology next year.
The Australian government says Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will offer his own apology Monday to the child migrants, as well as to the "forgotten Australians," children who suffered in state care during the last century.
Sandra Anker, who was sent to Australia from Britain when she was six, said the British government "have a lot to answer for."
"We've suffered all our lives," she told the BBC. "For the government of England to say sorry to us, it makes it right – even if it's late, it's better than not at all."
The British government has estimated that a total of 150,000 British children may have been shipped abroad under a variety of programs that operated between the early 19th century and 1967.
A 2001 Australian report said that between 6,000 and 30,000 children from Britain and Malta, often taken from unmarried mothers or impoverished families, were sent alone to Australia as migrants during the 20th century. Some of the children were told, wrongly, that they were orphans.
The migration was intended to stop the children being a burden on the British state while supplying the receiving countries with potential workers. A 1998 British parliamentary inquiry noted that "a further motive was racist: the importation of 'good white stock' was seen as a desirable policy objective in the developing British Colonies."
British Children's Secretary Ed Balls said the child migrant policy was "a stain on our society."
"The apology is symbolically very important," he told Sky News television.
"I think it is important that we say to the children who are now adults and older people and to their offspring that this is something that we look back on in shame," he said.
"It would never happen today. But I think it is right that as a society when we look back and see things which we now know were morally wrong, that we are willing to say we're sorry."
But official apologies for historical wrongs have proved controversial.
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard resisted calls to apologize to institutionalized children and Australian Aborigines, arguing that contemporary Australians should not take responsibility for mistakes made by past generations.
Rudd reversed the policy after he was elected in 2007, apologizing to Aborigines for 200 years of injustice since European settlement.
At a ceremony Monday in Canberra attended by hundreds of former child migrants, Rudd will apologize for his country's role in the child migrants program and say sorry to the 7,000 survivors of the program who still live in Australia.
He also will apologize to the Australian children – more than 500,000, according to a 2004 Australian Senate report – who were placed in foster homes, orphanages and other institutions during the 20th century. Many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused in state care.