Film details Britain's forced child migrant scandal


Oranges & Sunshine
Written by Rona Munro, directed by Jim Loach
Starring Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving & David Wenham
Showing now in selected cinemas

Oranges and Sunshine is a film adaptation of the book Empty Cradles, written by Margaret Humphries.

Humphries was a Nottingham part-time social worker (played by Emily Watson), who investigated the forced relocation of British children to Australia from British orphanages.

She began after an Australian woman named Charlotte asked Margaret “who am I” and thrust documents into her hands one night in 1986 in Britain.

After Humphries found Charlotte's mother, who she had been led to believe was dead, many other child migrants come to Humphries to help re-locate their parents.

Humphries stumbled across the case of 130,000 British children from working-class homes, often falsely told their parents were dead, who were sent to Australia.

They were promised that when they got to Australia, they would have a better life. As one of the migration agents told Jack (Hugo Weaving), they will have plenty of sunshine and be able to pick oranges on the way to school.

Instead, they were sent to do forced labour at places such as Bindoon, in Western Australia, for organisations such as the Christian Brothers and St Bernados.

The children often suffered horrific abuse at the hands of those who ran these institutions.

Humphries is assisted in her investigation by two former child migrants, Jack and Len (David Wenham), who was sent to Bindoon when he was eight-years-old.

There were no records kept of these forced deportations by either the British and Australian governments. However, Margaret realises that these deportations must have been known about and endorsed by the highest levels of the British government, through the Home Office, and the Australian government who accepted these children.

Although it is not mentioned in the movie, the British government endorsed the scheme as it was cheaper to send the kids to Australia ― where it cost only 10 shillings a day to care for the children as opposed to £5 in Britain.

In October 1987, an article by Humphries titled “Lost Children of the Empire” was published in the British Observer. She set up the Child Migrants Trust, which continues to reunite former child migrants with their families.

Although various migration schemes began in the 19th century, these schemes peaked in the 1950s and '60s and were only ended in 1970.

It was not until 2009 that the British and Australian governments issued a formal apology to the child migrants.

The film is the directorial debut of Jim Loach, the son of British socialist film director Ken Loach.

It is a powerful testament to the dedication of Humphries in her pursuit of justice for the child migrants and a damming indictment of their actions. It shows the indifference of these governments to the fate of these children and their suffering.

Parallels can be drawn between this scheme and the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents, as well as the mistreatment of refugees by the Australian government.

Unless we protest against such abuses of power, they will continue.