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The lie, the forgotten and the found: The legacy of the Commonwealth Child Migration Scheme

Children as young as three were shipped abroad with the promise of a better life – only to find themselves enduring a life of child slavery, abuse and neglect

By Ruth Allen (BASW CEO), Gabriella Zavoli (BASW Heritage Project Coordinator) & Vicci Mace (Tilia Communications)

** Book Now: An Evening with Margaret Humphries (Thursday, 18 March 2021, 18:30pm) **

Imagine children being taken from their family in the UK, placed in care and foster homes, stripped of their identity, then transported thousands of miles to institutions in far off lands. Imagine these institutions being frequently the harshest, most abusive and exploitative. And imagine what might happen to those children as they grew up and came into adulthood - without familial connections or history, without documents about their identity, without the truth of how they had got there. 

This isn’t imaginary. This describes the real experience of over 100,000 children who were victims of the Commonwealth Child Migration Scheme which took children to colonised and latterly Commonwealth countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The scheme only ended in 1970 after 100 years and successive governments’ support.

Most Council children services were not directly involved in child migration and many opposed it. But, in those times before the creation of integrated social services departments, they did not prevent religious and charitable organisations from migrating children in their care to other countries. 

The dominant story was this would provide a new and better life for ‘abandoned’ or orphaned children. But this was most often a lie. In reality, children often had not been abandoned by their parents or orphaned. They were migrated without living parents’ consent or even knowledge, and without the wellbeing, education and safety of children at heart.

Organisations overseas received money for children placed in institutions. The children were often treated as workers and as has become abundantly clear, were frequently the victims of institutional abuse and the worst of human behaviours towards children without rights or protection.


Despite the numbers of children involved, by the 1980s this was almost a forgotten story in the UK. While the preoccupation in British politics and press was often immigration from Commonwealth countries into the UK and racialised politics in British cities, the terrible practices and impact of the Commonwealth Child Migration Scheme had become a hidden, different expression of colonialism and its aftermath. 

It was designed over decades with the colonial racist aim of bringing ‘good white stock’ into Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand to displace indigenous peoples. It took children in care from white families and mothers in distress. Around a third of the children taken were born to Irish mothers. The scheme had no regard for the happiness, rights and wellbeing of the children who were, in many ways, indeed treated like ‘stock’; taken to work on farms and to build and maintain the fabric of religious and other buildings.

After a hiatus in the second world war, child migration resumed in 1947. It was opposed by the then British Federation of Social Workers and others, but it restarted under government mandate. 

Many children between 1947 and 1970 were taken at birth without the consent of mothers who were often under duress. Facing hardship, some mothers of infants and older children asked for temporary help, asking for their children to go into care homes as a short-term measure until they got back on their feet. Many of those parents returned to reclaim their children only to be told they had been adopted or in some cases, that they had died. 

Parents often had no idea their children had been taken abroad and many children had no idea their parents were alive let alone may be looking for them.

Children as young as three were shipped abroad with the promise of a better life – only to find themselves enduring a life of child slavery, abuse and neglect. Many children died. 


In 1986 a request for family tracing came into an ordinary social services office in Nottinghamshire. One of the migrated children, now grown up, was trying to find their family. This request found the right place when it came across the desk of a young social worker, Margaret Humphreys.  

Margaret initially knew nothing about child migration but as she uncovered what had happened to that first person coming for help, she started her own career-long dedication to finding, supporting and fighting for the rights of child migrants and the support that adult survivors of childhood abuse need. 

She and others started what has become a powerful movement for justice and reparations - the Child Migrants Trust (CMT). This was created to help former child migrants reclaim their identities and reunite them with family in the UK and elsewhere. At first Margaret was supported by her family, by volunteers and by her employer, Nottinghamshire County Council. Now the CMT charity is funded by the UK and Australian Governments in recognition of the direct state sanctioning and culpability for child migration. Margaret’s pioneering work and the CMT’s advocacy have led to public enquiries and national apologies by both the UK and Australian governments.

Many migrated children did not have a birth certificate or had names changed, making it difficult to trace their family. The CMT’s work has established specialist and independent services to restore identity and promote recovery from the trauma and painful legacy of those lost years. Thousands of former child migrants have been able to find their own families, histories and identities. Today, many people – some very elderly – still come forward to CMT to seek support and justice for the first time.


2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the critically acclaimed film about child migration to Australia, ‘Oranges and Sunshine’. It is adapted from Margaret Humphreys 1994 book, ‘Empty Cradles’, directed by Jim Loach and featuring Emily Watson as Margaret Humphreys.  

It tells the story from that first-person seeking information about their family from Nottinghamshire social service, to the revelation of what happened to thousands of child migrants in Australian institutions and how support and recognition developed. It shows Margaret’s journey as she uncovered their ordeal and realised what she and others needed to do to seek justice and healing and the long road to an apology by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in 2010. 

It is a story that needs repeating and remembering - how a chance meeting uncovered a scandal that still impacts on individuals and families today across the world. And what campaigning and profoundly compassionate social work can and should do - turn lives around, enable people to speak out, heal and get justice.

Oranges & Sunshine - Online discussion and film showing - 18th March 6.30pm

Watch the trailer for Oranges & Sunshine

A discussion with Margaret Humphreys and film Director Jim Loach, with a special free screening of the film Oranges and Sunshine will take place on 18th March. This is part of the British Association of Social Workers’ World Social Work Day events. The theme this year is fittingly from Southern Africa - Ubuntu: I am because We Are. This is a powerful message of solidarity and how people need to come together for a sustainable, fair and equitable future. 

Ubuntu encourages us to connect with the opposite of what happened to child migrants and their families. They were treated as ‘other’, as ‘things’ in the service of institutions and colonial ideology. They were people, equal in value and part of us, then and now, deserving of recognition, justice and reparation for what happened to them, so nothing like it can happen again.

The event is free to join with the option of donating to the Child Migrants Trust.

For more information, visit: An evening with Margaret Humphreys