Daily Mail - UK March 27, 2011
How one letter let me expose Britain's worst child abuse scandal
Social worker uncovered the horrors faced by children shipped to far-flung corners of the Empire
Sitting in a screening room last week, I watched my life portrayed by someone else. A stranger played my husband and there were different children in my house.
My daughter Rachel, son Ben and husband Mervyn had swapped jokes for months about what this moment might be like. Now we were nervous.
On screen, actress Emily Watson appeared as a social worker coaxing a distraught teenage mother into surrendering her baby. I held my breath. A vignette from my life had transported me back 25 years.
The film, Oranges And Sunshine, which opens this week, is based on my memoir.
It tells a story which began in 1986 when, as a social worker in Nottingham, I received a letter from a woman who claimed that, aged four, she had been shipped to Australia by our Government.
Soon afterwards, a second woman told me how she had traced her brother, who had also been sent abroad as a child.
As I researched their stories, I began to uncover what are known as the Child Migration Schemes and, in particular, the most recent one, which came in response to the Australian government's desire to boost its post-war population.
The children had mostly been in the care of voluntary agencies with religious ties.
From the middle of the 19th Century until as recently as 1970, 130,000 British children - some aged just three - were rounded up, with the knowledge and support of organisations such as Dr Barnardo's.
They were put on to ships and transported to distant parts of the British Empire.
Many were told their parents had died but, in fact, few were orphans.
Some were from broken homes or simply placed in care by their parents until they could get back on their feet. Mothers were frequently told their children were being adopted in Britain.
The children themselves were promised a better life, where they would be raised by loving families and enjoy lots of oranges and sunshine - hence the title of the film. In reality, they were often used as slave labour and endured physical and sexual abuse.
Some organisations were so determined these children would never find their way home that their names, dates and places of birth were changed.
In 2002, I was approached by Jim Loach, who was passionate about making a film about this shameful chapter in our history.
Meanwhile, I continued tracing families and organising reunions through the Child Migrants Trust, which I founded in 1987. I also lobbied governments for the public apology the children deserved.
That milestone came in 2010 when Gordon Brown told Parliament: 'To all those former child migrants and their families... we are truly sorry.'
Some migrants managed to find their parents or siblings; others were too late.
The film focuses on a handful of these stories, but its power is not diminished.
These people are survivors; picking up the pieces of their past lives while searching for identity.
Most of us know who we are. Imagine having this stripped away, being unable to get a passport because you have no birth certificate, no real name.
The most frequent statement I've heard is: 'I'm nobody.' That's what they had been told so often as children - their sense of rejection remains profound.
At Bindoon in Western Australia, boys as young as 11 hauled rocks until their hands were blistered and cut.
They were building a school for the Christian Brothers, a place of beauty that hides terrible secrets. I have listened to men sobbing as they revealed what they endured there.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of my first and only visit to Bindoon.
We went early on a Sunday. In newspapers that day, a historian hired by the Christian Brothers suggested that child migrants who alleged sexual abused were already sexually active when they arrived in Australia because they were products of British childcare institutions. I was appalled.
I didn't want to go inside the building, but I had no option. I found myself staring at these black-robed men, eating toast and drinking tea.
There was absolute silence. I had been told many times of the terrible crimes committed here. And they knew who I was.
They seemed uncomfortable in my presence. It was probably a moment they had thought would never happen: an Englishwoman confronting them, and confronting Bindoon's past.
I do hope the film reaches a wide audience. Aside from drawing attention to such a scandalous experiment, it has something important to say about loss, identity, family and relationships. I don't need to see the film again. Our search continues.
Oranges And Sunshine, by Margaret Humphreys, is published by Transworld priced £7.99. To order your copy for £7.49 inc p&p call the Review Bookstore on 0 45 155 0730 or visit www.Maillife.co.uk/books
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The Guardian - UK April 7, 2011
Child migrants: 'I didn't belong to anybody'
Harold Haig was among thousands of child migrants who were deported to Australia and subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse. A new film depicts their plight
by Patrick Barkham
When Harold Haig was 10 years old, a man in a suit came to visit. "He said to me, 'Would you like to go to this wonderful place called Australia where the sun shines all day every day and you pick oranges off the trees, live in a little white cottage by the sea and ride a horse to school?'" remembers Haig, who is 73 but looks younger, with Pete Postlethwaite cheekbones and flowing white hair. "While I was letting this sink in, he added, 'Well, you know you're an orphan, your parents are dead, you've got no family, you might as well go.'"
Haig was one of 7,000 children from British care homes who were shipped mostly to Australia and Canada between the second world war and 1967. The scandal of the lies and abuse suffered by these child migrants was exposed thanks to the tireless work of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, who, in 1987, took it upon herself to help them find their families. As Oranges and Sunshine, a moving new film by Jim Loach – son of Ken – shows, Humphreys defied death threats to discover the truth about these former child migrants and their past lives. When Haig begins to talk, it is eerie because his softly spoken words and manner exactly resemble those of Jack, a traumatised former child migrant in the film who is played by Hugo Weaving. The British-Australian actor met and talked to Haig about his experiences before taking the role.
Apart from the man in the suit talking of oranges and sunshine, Haig barely remembers anything of his childhood in Britain. "Because of my lack of memories, I may as well have been born in Australia when I was 11 years old," he says, bleakly. He was sure he had a sister called Marie, but he could not remember anything at all about his mother: no image, no voice, no smell. "Just a blank. An absolute blank."
Surrounded by other "orphaned" children, the voyage to Australia was an adventure ("we ran riot"). When Haig arrived, he was dispatched to a Church of England boarding school in Melbourne. Other child migrants were less fortunate, as Oranges and Sunshine reveals through the story of Len, played by David Wenham. 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. One victim told an official inquiry that his Christian Brother carers competed to become the first to rape him 100 times.
Haig escaped such trauma – he would be beaten with a strap if he did anything wrong – but, as he says: "The thing missing in an institution for children is that there is no love. You get punished but there is no one there to put their arm around you and say it's OK." One of many powerful scenes in Oranges and Sunshine is when the character based on Haig falteringly explains how he feels: "There's an emptiness in me. There always has been and I think the only thing that could fill it was her, my mother." Haig says something similar when he talks of how he married, had three children and established a successful signwriting business: "Anyone would've thought there's a fella who's got everything, but it was like I had a block of ice inside me. I felt empty. I knew I was missing something. I couldn't work out what it was. And there was this feeling – I didn't know who I was. I didn't know where I'd come from. I didn't belong to anybody. I was in this void."
In the 1960s, Haig sank into a deep depression. He was prescribed antidepressants, saved them up and swallowed them all. "I wanted to die. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up to get rid of this pain, this emptiness," he says. His wife, normally a good sleeper, woke up and saved his life. He wishes he hadn't tried to take his life at home, while his children slept.
The "beautiful" younger sister he was always convinced he had eventually traced him through the Salvation Army. Marie had been separated from their mother and Haig, and raised in care homes in Britain; unlike Haig, she remembered her sibling. One day, in 1987, Marie told him she was coming to Australia with a social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who she wanted him to meet. Haig, by then divorced and wandering the Australian outback ("I don't know what I was looking for"), was unimpressed. "I'd seen a lot of social workers and I had no respect for any of them," he says.
While Oranges and Sunshine shows Humphreys struggling to win the trust of some child migrants, Haig quickly came to respect her. She was the first to raise the possibility that Haig had been told a terrible untruth – that he might not be an orphan after all. "I didn't think anyone would be so cruel to tell you that sort of a lie," he says. He is amazed by Emily Watson's performance as Humphreys in the film. "I could've been watching Margaret," he says.
Haig visited Britain for six months in 1989 to get to know Marie, who passed away 14 years ago, and to help Humphreys track down his mother. With so little record-keeping by the authorities, still in denial over the scale of the trauma they created, it took another few years for them to get confirmation that Haig had not been an orphan. His parents had separated during the war, and with two children, no benefits and no relatives nearby, his mother had been forced to give up her son and daughter.
Humphreys discovered Haig's mother had lived two miles from where he was kept in homes (eight institutions in 14 months before he was "deported" – as the former child migrants say – to Australia) and had died just a year before he first visited Britain. The belated release of more suppressed information 10 years ago also helped Humphreys, who was awarded a CBE this year, finally identify Haig's deceased father.
No photographs remain of his mother, and Haig will forever wonder why he was given up and whether his mother tried to find him. As Oranges and Sunshine shows, parents were often deceived by the authorities and told their children had been adopted or even that they were dead. "Mothers went to their graves never knowing that their children were still alive, and happy, and well," says Haig. "It's criminal. I don't know what worse you can do to people."
Why did this happen? For the British authorities, a one-way ticket to Australia was cheaper than looking after children in care homes. For the Australian government, petrified they would be overrun by Asian immigrants, white children were ideal fodder for the racist "White Australia" policy.
In 2009, the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to child migrants. "It's a day we'll never forget," says Haig, who is secretary of the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, and is still good friends with Humphreys. Gordon Brown followed with an apology on behalf of the British government a year later.
The trauma of all these state-sanctioned lies and abuse has left a long, scarring legacy. Haig is still estranged from his two daughters who felt deserted when his depression destroyed his marriage. "They think I abandoned them, and in many ways I did. I had trouble looking after myself," he says, anguish in his voice. He has since been reconciled with his son, and he hopes the film might yet bring him back together with his daughters.
"What Margaret did for me and for thousands of child migrants is to give us back our lives, give us back our identity, and shine a light in where there was just darkness." Where would he be without Humphreys? "I have my doubts about whether I'd be here alive," he says. "You should ask, where would all of us be?"
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