They were sent from orphanages from the north of Ireland and Britain to Australia with the promise of freedom. Many ended up in the care of the notorious Christian Brothers where they were treated as slave labour and suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse.
Between 1947 and 1967 up to 10,000 children were shipped to Australia. They were sent to populate a nation with what was called at the time “good white stock”. They were also the unwilling contestants in a competition between religious faiths to boost their numbers.
Parents weren’t told the truth. Their children lost their real identities and were told they were orphans going on holiday to a place where the sun always shines. The policy was endorsed by the Government of the day.
It was cheaper to send children to Australia than care for them on British (occupied) soil. It cost £5 a day to care in the UK but only 10 shillings in Australian institutions. According to Humphreys, up to 150,000 children are believed to have been resettled under the scheme, some as young as three, about 7,000 of whom were sent to Australia.
The practice continued until 1967 when it was stopped and exposed by Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham. The Child Migrants Trust, was established to reunite and support long lost families. The best the British government could come up with after 50 years was to acknowledge in 2000 that the scheme was misguided. It also set up a travel fund for the children to return home for family reunions. But as of yet, no money has been made available.
Empty Cradles, Humphreys’ account of the formation and early struggles of the Child Migrants Trust, was published in 1994. Its sales of 75,000 copies helped to fund the work of the Trust at a critical time when British government grants had been stopped. Empty Cradles has been dramatised as the 2011 feature film Oranges and Sunshine, a 2010 British-Australian drama film co-production directed by Jim Loach with the leading roles played by Emily Watson as Margaret.