Child migration history

Britain is the only country in the world with a sustained history of child migration.

Children, some as young as three years old, were taken from their mothers and fathers, from all that was familiar to them, and shipped thousands of miles away from their home country to institutions in distant lands within the Commonwealth.

Many of these children were removed without their parents' knowledge or consent. Many were denied a proper education, instead forced to work gruelling jobs, and thousands more suffered serious and sustained abuse in their new homes.

Origins and destinations

Britain’s child migration has a long history. In 1618, a hundred children were sent from London to Virginia, now one of the United States of America, in one of Britain’s first cases of forced child migration.

The number of children being shipped overseas increased dramatically during the days of the British empire and continued after the Second World War. During the twentieth century, British children were sent to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia.

Where Britain's children were sent

Many were sent abroad without passports, social histories or even basic documents such as a full birth certificate. Brothers and sisters were frequently separated for most of their childhood; some were loaded onto trucks for long journeys to remote institutions, only to be put to work as labourers the next day. Many were injured in building accidents at an age when they would have been in school if they had remained in the United Kingdom. Physical and sexual abuse was common, and some Canadian farmers were even charged with manslaughter, such was the extent of their cruelty.

The final party of child migrants arrived in Australia in 1970.

How many children were migrated?

Governments lack precise figures about the numbers of children sent by the United Kingdom. It’s estimated that overall, child migration removed over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom to Commonwealth countries.

In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia, while another 1,000 were shipped to New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada.

The motives behind child migration

One of the early motives of child migration schemes was to maintain the racial unity of Britain’s empire. Many young children were sent to populate the empire with "good, white British stock".

In Canada, child migrants were viewed as a convenient source of cheap farm labour. In Australia, they were a way of boosting the post-war population, and in former Rhodesia, they helped preserve a white, managerial elite.

Child migrants at work in Australia in 1942

Child migrants at work in Australia in 1942

Boys and girls were shipped abroad by specialist agencies such as the Fairbridge Society. Respected national child care charities such as Barnardos, along with the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, all played major roles.

Whatever the motive, the needs of the children involved were never a priority.

Acknowledgement and the Apology

In the decades since Britain formally stopped shipping children abroad, numerous inquiries and investigations, along with testimonies from former child migrants, have highlighted the enormity and tragic reality of forced child migration schemes.

Quote graphic from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry

In 2009, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Britain’s former child migrants and forgotten Australians. The next year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered an Apology, acknowledging the shameful way British former child migrants were treated by their country, and announced the Family Restoration Fund to reunite families that were torn apart.

However, the struggle for appropriate recognition and redress isn’t yet over. The Child Migrants Trust is currently campaigning for the UK Government to Honour the Apology of 2010. You can learn more about this campaign, and get involved, here.