Foreign Policy Blogs

Never too late to say you're sorry

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an emotional apology on Sunday to the victims of a largely forgotten chapter of Western history. Addressing a crowd of about 1000 former child migrants, Rudd issued a national apology for the mistreatment they received from the government when they had been promised a new chance and a new life in Australia decades ago.

Those present at the ceremony were part of the 150,000 poor child migrants sent by the UK to its colonies and former colonies since the late 19th century. The children were often born to impoverished families or to unwed mothers and taken by the state. Although many of the children were not orphans, they were treated as such and many of the parents of child migrants were never told what happened to their children. Once resettled in faraway lands such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, the children were raised in state and church-run orphanages and foster care facilities. The Child Migrants Programme, which lasted until 1967, was supposed to give the children the chance at a better life. Instead, the child migrants often faced abuse and neglect in their new homes, and with their nearest family being continents away, were left with nowhere to turn for support.

Although the program ended decades ago, the issue re-emerged in the late 1990s with Parliamentary hearings in the UK and attempts in Australia by survivors to track down their real families. Watching the crowd reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech, it is clear that the trauma of those events still resonate with the adult migrants who still live in Australia. It is expected that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will follow Australia’s lead and offer an official apology on behalf of the UK to the survivors of the Child Migrants Programme early next year while the issue is being closely watched in Canada, where the majority of the migrant children were placed.

The Australian apology to child migrants is the latest in an increasing trend of political apologies for wrongs committed by the government against their own people. Last year the Canadian government apologized to former students of the county’s residential school program which took aboriginal students away from their parents and placed them in state sponsored schools. Though the program was supposed to encourage integration and assimilation into White culture, in reality the students experienced horrific abuse and substandard education and care as the result of their ethnic heritage. Similarly, Australia apologized last year to the “Stolen Generations”, the term given to Australian Aborigines who were forcibly removed from their homes to be raised in state schools in an effort to “civilize” them. Both programs ran until shockingly recently. In the case of Canada, the last residential school did not close until 1996, while Aborigine children were removed without cause from their families in Australia up until 1971.

These apologies represent a significant change in how Western governments view vulnerable populations and the lasting effects of harmful state policies. To go from official policies of ethnocide to condemnation for such policies in such a short period of time is a drastic cultural shift, and one that these countries are better off for. More than anything, these official apologies demonstrate a basic recognition that such policies and programs hurt people who deserved the protection and respect of the government. In the cases outlined above, these were groups of children who by definition depend on the protection of adults. Apologizing for wrongs committed against them – whether in the name of racial assimilation or poverty alleviation – allows societies to reflect on the choices they have made in the past and how to prevent further abuses in the future. However such apologies also have their limits in usefulness. Even the most well intentioned speech cannot erase the toll that decades or centuries of degrading policies have on a people. True reconciliation cannot be accomplished with an apology alone, but rather an apology can be a useful first step in a much longer process.

As Australia, Canada, the UK, and others contemplate their past, this last point should be kept in mind if there is to be real change in the cultural assumptions, prejudices, and politics that allowed these events to occur in the first place. After all, that is the best way to say that you are truly sorry.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa