Thursday, February 25, 2010

Child Migrants in Australia Recall Abuse

It is common knowledge that Australia was founded as a prison colony for the British Empire. I used this bit of knowledge to my advantage back in high school to neutralise an Australian classmate who was taunting me with withering effectiveness in front of an entire class. Unable to tolerate it any more, I blurted out, "Shut the hell up ! You're descended from convicts!" It must have touched a raw nerve, because his face turned beet red as he fell completely silent.

Australians have learned to become proud of their history. A kid who steals a bag of apples doesn't exactly evoke moral indignation today. And most of those sentenced to "transportation" were not such awful people. Chances are, my Australian classmate would today be bragging of his convict ancestry in today's social climate.

I had always thought that Australia's history as a destination of exile and punishment ended in the 19th century. It now turns out I was mistaken. From the 1920's to the 1960's, British children were sent to Australia under a program known as the "Child Migrants Programme". In the program, they were consigned to Australian orphanages. Often they were subjected to harsh and grueling regimens that included physical and sexual abuse.

The victims of the forced relocations recounted their grim existence after listening to Prime Minister Brown's videotaped speech at a gathering in New South Wales, Australia. The Daily Telegraph reports as follows on the public apology of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the abuses that were rampant in the ill conceived program.

Many of those who spent the six week voyage to the other side of the world ended up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused.

They were times that those who suffered in this way have tried hard to forget, but like a recurring nightmare they admit the horrors will remain with them for the rest of their years.

Ask Ron Grant, 73, what it was like in the Sydney institution he found himself in and he shakes his head.

'No more - I can't talk about it any more. I will only say that it wasn't good.

'The worst part was that I felt completely alone, abandoned.'

Alone... abandoned... they were words on everyone's lips, more than the memories of any beatings or sexual abuse they might have endured at the hands of adult strangers.

The British government is now compensating the victims of the forced relocation by assisting them in finding families from which they had become estranged. In some cases, adults found out late in life that they had names, families and a prior life in Great Britain.

The case evokes memories of a scandal in Ireland, that of the Magdalene Sisters, about which a move was made. The Magdalene Sisters had a contract with the Irish Government that was a carryover from the early 19th century under British rule. It was essentially a church run reform school for "crimes" that could be as trivial as being too flirtatious. Needless to say, many girls who became preganant out of wedlock ended up under the care of the Magdalene Sisters or other religious orders. The Irish Spartacist web site is detailed in its presentation of the historical facts of the case. Their site reported as follows on the systematic abuse involved in subcontracting to the Catholic Church

"Approximately 30,000 mostly young and poor women were forcibly sent to these church prisons because they were considered “fallen women.” The four protagonists of the film depict reasons women were incarcerated in the laundries: Margaret is raped by a cousin, Bernadette (an orphan) is considered too flirtatious, Rose and Crispina each has a child outside wedlock. Rose has her baby ripped from her arms only hours after giving birth and Crispina is later driven insane by her brutal treatment in the laundry and her separation from her son. There are also many older women who had spent most of their lives there. Women are forced to slave from early morning to evening in the profit-making laundries. Sister Bridget is repeatedly shown greedily counting the money. The women are beaten, degraded and suffer sexual abuse. All this that they might do penance for their “sins”!

The women were imprisoned not only by the walls of the laundries, but also through rejection by their families and society. In one scene in the film, Margaret has an opportunity to escape, but doesn’t because she knows she has nowhere to go. When one of the other women does manage to escape, her father brings her back to the laundry and beats her. After Bernadette eventually escapes, she is terrified of being reimprisoned when she sees cops and nuns on the street.

Mary Norris recently described her experience in a Magdalene laundry in Cork:

“Plenty of people will think the events in the film have been exaggerated to make it more dramatic. But I tell you, the reality of those places was a thousand times worse. There’s a scene in which a girl is crying in the dormitory and another goes over to her bed to comfort her. That could never have happened. You weren’t allowed any private conversation."

To be completely fair, it should be noted that the children sent to Australia endured abuse under secular auspices. Great Britain could hardly be considered a stronghold of the Catholic Church. My gut feeling is that new abuses are being perpetrated by "enlightened" and completely secular agencies that have been put in charge of foster children and orphans.

From what I have heard from my contacts in the New York foster care and residential treatment system, there are plenty of human rights abuses that are being swept under the rug at this very moment. It is critical not only to spotlight past abuses, but to see what is going on in the present as well. As sad as I feel reading of the veterans of the "Child Migrants Programme" and the Magdalene Sisters, I feel no sense of reassurance that we have improved at all as a society in the treatment of orphans and difficult children.

What can help us as we face the future? Eternal vigilance, coupled with compassion for the voiceless is our only protection.

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