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A tragic part of our history
on 27 December 2015
I saw the film Oranges And Sunshine, which is based upon Empty Cradles, several years ago so was already aware of the human tragedy at the centre of this book. Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys discovered evidence of a massive resettlement scheme undertaken by the British government together with several then Commonwealth governments that sent thousands and thousands of unaccompanied British children to foster families, children's homes and institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. The scheme ran for several decades with the last children leaving the UK in 1967. Nearly always described as orphans in press reports, the children themselves were mostly told that their parents had died or just didn't want them anymore. Most weren't given any choice in their exile or destination and many were systematically abused, sometimes for years, in their new lives.
It is difficult to write a review of a book which deals with such an inhumane and emotive subject. Many of the former child migrants who spoke to Humphreys related terrible stories of their treatment. Isolation, desperation and long-term mental health problems have blighted many of these lives and the accumulation of these tales is harrowing. Not all the children were treated badly, but there aren't many of the happy tales in Empty Cradles. The book was written to help raise awareness and, ultimately, funds for the Child Migrant Trust - a charity set up by Humphreys to help reunite lost children with their families - so it does tug at heartstrings pretty much relentlessly. Also, this is Humphreys' story of her own efforts so we get to read a lot about her familial sacrifices, long hours, sleepless nights and manic globetrotting. I have no doubt that Humphreys and her family did give up a lot and the irony of her own frequently left-behind children wasn't lost on me, however the mixing of history and personal biography didn't sit well for me and I frequently found myself wondering who I was really supposed to be felling sorry for.