Call the Midwife: What was the Child Migrants Programme?

Tonight's child neglect storyline ended on a sad note, but what would really have happened to Gary and his little sisters in those days?

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Call the Midwife’s return to our TV screens packed a punch this evening, with an episode that exposed a case of serious child neglect.

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When grubby Gary wheeled his sickly baby sister into Poplar clinic, after milk tokens and orange juice, Trixie was suspicious, but the little boy’s situation was unhappier than she could imagine. PC Noakes intervened, the residents of Nonnatus House took it upon themselves to clean and care for the distressed youngsters and their happy ending was finally in sight.

As the episode came to a close, Vanessa Redgrave’s dulcet tones returned, telling us: “It sometimes happens that new beginnings come not at once, but at last. The wait is rewarded and the fresh start can commence.”

But then the episode’s optimism was snatched away.  “We can never know how the story will conclude. And perhaps that’s for the better,” continued the older Jenny Lee. “Baby Coral was adopted and her three elder siblings were sent to Australia under the Child Migrants Programme. They were promised a life of sunshine and blue skies and endless opportunity. The truth was otherwise and the only consolation is that hope made them happy, for a while.” 

It was a gutting footnote to an episode in need of a happy ending. And a confusing one for those unfamiliar with the Child Migrants Programme. So what did happen to Gary and his little sisters? 

Under the Child Migrants Programme, an estimated 130,000 children, some as young as three, were shipped overseas from Britain to other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The idea behind the scheme was to help populate the Commonwealth whilst also relieving the pressure on British services tasked with looking after them. The belief was that the children were likely to have a better life abroad, but unfortunately that was not the reality.

The child migrants were sometimes falsely told they were orphans or sent away without their relatives’ consent or knowledge – without passports or birth certificates – and where then split up from their siblings too. Upon their arrival, some were placed with foster parents or in the care of farmers and many were forced to work long hours for little pay without adequate food or basic safety measures. Very few children were legally adopted and the vast majority spent their entire childhoods in appalling conditions in large institutions and never received any formal education. 

Since the practise stopped around 1970, some countries involved have apologised for the Child Migrants Programme. 

In 2009, Australian PM Kevin Rudd referenced the “little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes [and] were abused physically, humiliated cruelly, violated sexually” adding: “Sorry – for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.” 

Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologised for the programme in 2010, saying: “To all those former child migrants and their families… we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.”

“Anyone who studies what happened, systematically and for so long, will be profoundly shocked at the splitting of families, the lies and abuse that took place, the official sanction which made it possible, and the heartache which it caused,” added David Cameron. 

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Call the Midwife continues on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1