This year the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is revisiting the 15 investigation reports it has published so far into different institutions – examining the evidence heard, the findings made and following up on crucial recommendations. John O’Brien, Secretary to the Inquiry, discusses the first report into Child Migration Programmes.
Almost three years ago the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published its very first report, focusing on child migrants from the UK. Now, due to our recommendations in that report, more than 1,400 former child migrants have received long overdue compensation, as well as acknowledgement and apologies from the institutions that failed them. These children were shipped off to a completely alien environment, often thousands of miles from home, and had no escape.
After the Second World War, successive UK governments allowed around 4,000 children to be sent to institutions and families abroad. They were mainly shipped off to Australia, but other destinations included Canada, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). Many witnesses who gave evidence in our public hearings said the ‘care’ regimes they were held under included physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Some described constant hunger, medical neglect and poor education, with lifelong consequences.
One former child migrant said his experiences at one school were “better described as torture than abuse”, saying he was locked in a place known as ‘the dungeon’ without food or water for days. Another told of “backbreaking” work on the building of a new school building. Yet another spoke of the failure to give him medical attention, which resulted in the loss of an eye. In some places, there were persistent beatings of boys and girls, and one witness described how he had tried to kill himself at the age of 12.
The Inquiry heard that there were very few, if any, ways of reporting the abuse, and many of the children feared being punished if they tried. They were often simply not believed or intimidated with violence. One witness was told to ‘pray’ for her abuser, with no further action being taken on the abuse. Another was told not to tell anyone when he reported that he had been raped.
Government departments, public authorities and charities helped carry out child migration programmes and by extension are responsible for, at least in part, the terrible physical, emotional and sexual abuse these children suffered.
The Inquiry’s report, which was published in March 2018, contained three recommendations:
1. Financial compensation for all former child migrants
2. Further apologies from institutions involved in the Child Migration Programme
3. The preservation of child migrants’ records
There has since been significant progress made on these recommendations. On 22 July 2019, the Government said more than 1,400 compensation payments had been made to former British child migrants via its ex-gratia payment scheme. This was significant because the scheme didn’t use an assessment of individual harm when deciding on the payouts, instead compensating people for an overall failure of the government to protect children that it had allowed to go abroad.
Apologies have also been provided by 12 institutions involved in the Child Migration Programme including various charities and high profile institutions such as the Church of England and Wales. Finally, nine institutions have assured the Inquiry that they are committed to making sure all former child migrants are given access to their records if they wish. Apologies, compensation and access to records can never make up for the abuse suffered by these children. But they do show that institutions are finally acknowledging what happened and owning up to their failures.
The Child Migration Programme report formed the first phase of the Inquiry’s wider investigation concerning protection of children outside the UK. The second report, published in January 2020, focused on the current legal measures to stop people known to be a risk to children from offending abroad.
The Inquiry finished its final public hearing in December last year but there is still plenty of work to do. We will be publishing five more investigation reports this year, as well as more hugely important research. We expect to publish the Inquiry’s final, overarching report and recommendations in 2022.