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For Forgotten Australians, it wasn't Oranges and Sunshine! PDF Print E-mail

© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

ImageLaurie Humphreys was on the first ship after the Second World War that brought 150 British boys and girls, aged five to14 years, to Australia in 1947. At 13, he was promised oranges and sunshine and an adventurous holiday, but the reality was the contrary.

 Tens of thousands of children suffered systemic physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect, exploitative work practices and deprivation of food, clothing and proper education while in government institutions, church organisations, orphanages, homes or foster care.


British Director Jim Loach’s latest film, `Oranges and Sunshine’, has brought those painful memories flashing back for Laurie and many of the nearly 500,000 `Forgotten Australians’, comprising over 7,000 former British child migrants, and White Australian and Aboriginal  children, who were removed from their families until the 1970s with a aim of giving them a better life.


Children were placed in care for varied reasons including being orphaned, born to a single mother, parents separated or divorced, poverty, and risk of harm due to domestic violence. Many were wrongly told their parents were dead; many parents were persuaded to sign over legal guardianship of their children on the promise of a better life for their children.


The film tells the story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham (England), who in 1987 investigated and brought to public attention the British government programme of forcibly relocating poor British children to Australia and other Commonwealth nations.


Now 77, Laurie has spent decades searching for his family. He was able to reconnect with his brothers and sisters and extended family, but his father died before he could afford to return to England to find his family in1982.


“Time is of the essence in finding and connecting families. Last year the British Government paid for a trip to enable me to visit my remaining family and my father’s grave. My mother had died when I was four years old and on the advice of the Parish priest my father placed me in an orphanage in Southampton”, Laurie told IPS.


The Australian Government is providing A$3 million in the first phase of the national `Find and Connect Service’. "Providing services to help them reconnect with their identity and with their families is one way the government can help heal the legacy of the trauma and loneliness of lost childhoods”, Families and Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin said last month.


On November 16, 2009, a formal apology was made by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.


"We are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy – the absolute tragedy – of childhoods lost," Rudd had said.


In February 2010, the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for the official Child Migrants Program.


While an apology has provided redemption, the fight for reparation continues. The Australian Government says compensation is the responsibility of state and territory governments. Three States have provided compensation, but three have not.


Caroline Carroll, now Records and Reunion Coordinator at Open Place, a service for `Forgotten Australians in Victoria, was made a ward of the state and placed in Sydney’s Bidura Children’s Home at 14 months. She was placed with different sets of foster parents, making it impossible to have any sense of belonging.


“One foster mother would hold my head down in the bath until I couldn’t breathe, she cut my long plaits and sold my hair. Back at Bidura, before being sent to the next foster home, at nine years I was given the standard vaginal tests — legs tied in stirrups. Those years were full of fear and terror”, says Caroline, recounting the dehumanising treatment meted out to her and other children by people who were meant to be their guardians.


“The Christian Brothers-run Bindoon Boys Town, 80km north of Perth, was also more a slave camp than an orphanage. Children worked on construction sites from dawn until dusk with daily beatings being the norm”, adds Laurie, a former Transport Workers Union vice president.


The plight of the ‘Forgotten Australians’ has been identified in three Senate Committee inquiries, where some spoke out for the first time about sustained brutality, solitary confinement, harsh and cruel punishments like cold showers and being paraded naked, names being changed to erase identity, siblings being separated and contact with family restricted or denied.


“There was a systemic failure by governments and providers to give children care and protection. As the `Forgotten Australians’ age, one of their fears is of being institutionalised again. Authorities need to involve them in the decision making and work with them and their families to address their needs”, Eris Harrison from the Alliance for Forgotten Australians (AFA), a national advocacy group, told IPS.


Years in different institutions left many `Forgotten Australians’ insecure, finding it difficult to trust or to form stable relationships.


Caroline, who married at 20 and had two children says, “The marriage didn't last. Without doubt my background would have contributed to this. That fear of rejection never leaves. I understood love when my kids were born and now my grandkids are the love of my life.”


For Laurie too, expressing love has been difficult. He says, “There is a distinct void. I married twice and my wives said that I lacked affection. On arrival at the Fremantle Port in Western Australia all those years ago, we were told that we were brought here to fill the empty cradles as Australia needed good White stock. The motto was to “Populate or Perish”. I have literally lived up to it and today have over 70 descendants.”


Many, like Laurie and Caroline, have tried to overcome the pain and suffering and have had successful careers, all along lobbying for the rights of `Forgotten Australians’. 


“It is hoped that recognition of the needs of `Forgotten Australians’ will stimulate improved responses from governments, past providers of “care” and the health and welfare community”, Eris told IPS.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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