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Child Migrants to sue Britain over abuse in Australia

Thousands of British foster children sent to Australia between 1951 and 1967 have hired lawyers to bring legal action against the Government for the abusive treatment they suffered in their new homes.

Thousands of British foster children sent to Australia between 1951 and 1967 have hired lawyers to bring legal action against the Government for the abusive treatment they suffered in their new homes.

Their families were led to believe the children had been adopted, but they were really in Australian institutions, often suffering under cruel regimes.

Most of the children were from broken homes and some were as young as four. Many were told they were orphans, although their families were still alive. Their parents had paid for the children to be taken into care homes in Britain, many run by churches. But when the adults returned to collect them they were told the children had gone to a better life.

A team of US lawyers is examining the possibility of bringing a claim in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg under various articles, including the prohibition on "torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment". Although the exodus of 10,000 children began as early as 1947, the lawyers are concentrating on those who left after 8 March 1951, when Britain signed a UN declaration pledging to protect the human rights of children.

At the Catholic children's home in Bindoon, on the outskirts of Perth in Western Australia, the first arrivals were forced to build their new home, while some of the children suffered sexual abuse.

Norman Johnston is a former Bindoon boy and president of the International Association of Former Child Migrants. He told the BBC that at least one deportee died alone, his body lying in a Perth mortuary for a week because there was no one to pay for his burial. When the police searched the dead man's home, they discovered he had grown up at Bindoon. He had written a letter asking for help in finding out if he had any family. But he had never posted it.

Mr Johnston's association wants an independent judicial inquiry into why the policy was allowed to continue under successive governments and who was responsible. "We have given the Government every opportunity to right the wrong they inflicted upon us," he said.

The Government did order a Health Select Committee investigation into the child migration policy. And Frank Dobson, when he was the secretary of state for health, announced a £1m travel fund for former child migrants.

It paid for a single visit home to see close relatives. Mr Johnston, who served with the Australian army in Vietnam, described the money as "nothing more than a Band-aid on a shell wound".

A Child Migrants Story

Nigel Owen, 60, who lives near Rhyl, is still searching for answers why as children the Government decided to send them overseas.

In the post and pre war era, approximately 150,000 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada.

The child migration programme sent the youngsters to start new lives in a foreign land always without their families and often after many years of harsh institutional care.
 Mr Owen said: “I was four years old at the time; we were in a Fairbridge Home in Knockholt Kent with my brother Clive and sister Wendy."

“We are still trying to ascertain why it happened."

“But we were shipped out in March 1955 on the ship SS Strathnaver to Melbourne and stayed at Northcote farm school outside Bacchus Marsh.

“There was regular physical and sexual abuse there, the children would be beaten and we would have to get up in the early hours."

“If you had wet the bed then you would be beaten with a strap and made to have a cold bath then wash the sheets, then polish the floor for hours or chop wood at the wood pile behind the cottage."

“There were around 160 kids in the school, I remember I had to peel the potatoes for everyone and my hands were bleeding, this happened regularly."

“I had a teddy with me, "Hector", I hid where I could and that became my comfort blanket, as all toys and personnel belongings were taken from you."

“I still have him today and told the story to Gordon Brown. When I was six I sewed a smile on his face to try and make me happy”

Mr Owen told how in summer farmers would come to take them for what they thought was a holiday but instead used them for slave labour. Nigel’s sister Wendy was raped at the age of 12 by a farmer and son and had three ribs broken.

Eventually after five years the three returned to Britain, but Mr Owen, whose surname was Powell at the time, was placed into  another orphanage for three years.

At the age of 14, Mr Owen’s step father, who lived in Caernarfon, adopted him.

After a working life in the merchant navy, Mr Owen, a father of three and grandfather of three, is now contemplating the emotional scars of his childhood experience.

“I learned very early on crying did no good and stopped crying, even now I have trouble expressing emotions,” he said.

“At the time I just thought it was the normal way to be brought up, it wasn’t until many years after I realised it was unusual and started making inquiries for the last thirty years.

“It’s ironic I got the apology nearly 55 years to the day.

“It made me feel I can get closure and there should be compensation, but what price is there on a stolen childhood. No amount of money can repair the physical and mental scars Child Migrants had to endure.

“My aunty, 85, was devastated when she found out.  If she had known she would have taken us all in.

My real father died in 1990 aged 79, I had a grandmother who died at the age of 103 in 2003, but I never got to meet either of them.”

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