Child Migration History

Australia 1938:

"When empty cradles are contributing woefully to empty spaces, it is necessary to look for external sources of supply. If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races."
His Grace the Archbishop of Perth, welcoming British child migrants shipped to Australia, August 1938

Australia 1944:

"It is proposed that the Commonwealth seek out in Britain and Europe, in each of the first three post-war years, at least 17,000 children a year (i.e. about 50,000 in three years) suitable and available for migration to Australia..."
Statement by the acting Australian Prime Minister, December 1944

Australia 1950:

"This party is the worst which we have ever received. We have in the past featured that it is an advantage to Australia to have immigrants of good sound British stock. If they are neither good nor sound we must modify our statements and lose one of our most profitable items of propaganda."
Fairbridge Society Report on Child Migrants sailing to Australia in 1950

Britain is the only country in the world with a sustained history of child migration. Only Britain has used child migration as a key part of its child care strategy over four centuries rather than as a last resort during times of war or civil unrest.

The reality of this policy was to remove children, some as young as three years old from their mothers and fathers, from all that was familiar to them, and to ship them thousands of miles away from their home country to institutions in distant lands within the Commonwealth. Many of these children were removed without their parents' knowledge or consent.


The origins of the scheme go back to 1618 when a hundred children were sent from London to Virginia which is now one of the United States of America. The final party arrived in Australia in 1970. Child migration removed over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia.

In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada received a combined total of about 1,000 children. Governments lack precise figures about the numbers of children sent by the United Kingdom.

Child migration refers to children generally between the ages of three and fourteen; most were between seven and ten. These children were sent away with the expectation that they would never return, to start new lives in a foreign land without their families and often in harsh, understaffed institutions.

British boys and girls were shipped overseas by specialist agencies such as the Fairbridge Society, which sent young children to populate the empire with "good, white British stock". Respected national child care charities such as Barnardos, along with the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, played major roles.

In New Zealand, children were often placed with foster parents, while those in Canada were sent to farms often without sufficient preparation or supervision. Some Canadian farmers were even charged with manslaughter, such was the extent of their cruelty. Very few children were legally adopted overseas and the vast majority spent their entire childhoods in large, impersonal institutions or farm schools with up to three hundred and fifty children.


Child migration was inspired by several motives, none of which gave first priority to the needs of the children involved. Consequently, child migrants were viewed as a convenient source of cheap labour on Canada's farms, as a means of boosting Australia's post-war population and preserving a white, managerial elite in the former Rhodesia. Certain groups of children were excluded as countries would not accept handicapped or black children, for example. One of the earlier motives of the schemes had been to maintain the racial unity of Britain's Empire.


After being told fanciful tales of travel to the 'Land of Milk and Honey', where children ride to school on horseback, child migrants were sent abroad without passports, social histories or even basic documents such as a full birth certificate. Brothers and sisters were frequently separated for most of their childhood; some were loaded onto trucks for long journeys to remote institutions, only to be put to work as labourers the next day. Many felt an extreme sense of rejection by their family and country of origin. Others felt like characters from Kafka's novels; their punishment was obvious - exile from their family and homeland - but the nature of their crime was a complete mystery.

The tragic reality for many child migrants was appalling standards of care which fell well below standards found within British institutions. Children as young as seven, sent to institutions in Western Australia, were involved in construction works without basic safety measures. Many were injured in building accidents at an age when they would have been in school if they had remained in the United Kingdom.


Throughout its long history, child migration has been punctuated by a series of scandals. The lack of educational provision, the overwork and inadequate pay, the suicides following episodes of ill-treatment and the appalling evidence of physical and sexual abuse - all have featured in official inquiries or newspaper headlines in nineteenth century Canada and South Africa as well as post-war New Zealand and Australia. These variations on a theme represent different forms of child abuse, involving an especially vulnerable, large group of British children whose interests have never been safeguarded effectively.

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