The film 'Oranges and Sunshine' tells of the thousands of British children forced into migration to the Commonwealth in the 1880s. Barnardo's had a role in this practice - but has it learned from past mistakes? Today, the children's charity faces accusations of collusion with the government over child detention
This isn’t the best of times for Barnardo’s, Britain’s biggest children’s charity. Already under fire for lending its name to the government’s rebranding of child immigration detention, Barnardo’s has a shaming presence in the deeply upsetting film, Oranges and Sunshine, released today.
The film concerns the hard-to-believe scandal of 130,000 children effectively exported from Britain to supply free labour and “white stock” to the Commonwealth. The practice began in earnest in the late 1800s, a collaboration by government, churches and charities including Dr Barnardo’s. In the years after World War II, some 4,500 children in care were despatched, the last landing in Australia as recently as 1970.
Oranges and Sunshine opens in 1986 when real-life Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys hears something unbelievable from a client whose brother Jack, lost since childhood when they were taken into care, has got in touch. Now middle-aged, Jack writes from Australia, saying he was sent there as a little boy “in a big ship full of kids”.
“Why have I never heard about it?” asks Humphreys, played with skilful ordinariness by Emily Watson. “Why has no-one ever heard about it?”
The answer, Humphreys finds, is that governments, churches and charities lied about it. The film focuses on child migrants sent to Australia. Oranges and Sunshine — Jim Loach’s debut feature — takes its name from false promises made to children by adults entrusted with their care.
Child migrants were told their parents were dead. Parents who had left children in institutions’ care with every intention of getting them back were told they had been adopted by loving families close to home.
In fact they had been sent thousands of miles away to wretched lives and sometimes criminal abuse in the care of ill-run institutions and child-raping Christian Brothers.
The film reveals how Margaret Humphreys and her husband Mervyn discovered and exposed all this, founding the Child Migrants Trust to help migrants trace their birth certificates, their parents, and their past.
The loss and pain might have been less had governments, churches and charities seen for themselves the errors of past practice and worked urgently to inform and reunite the damaged families. In one of the film’s heartbreaking moments, Humphreys tells Jack — the lost-and-found-again brother in Australia, played by Hugo Weaving — that she has found his mother. Then she pauses.
“We’re too late, she’s dead, isn’t she?” he says. “When did she die?”
“Last year,” says Humphreys.
A 105 minute docudrama written by Rona Munro (of Loach-senior’s Ladybird, Ladybird), the film stays close to Humphreys’s quest, eliciting the children’s stories gently, gathering darkness as it goes. Resisting flashbacks, Lynch lets the childhood horrors play out in the audience’s mind, where they stay. This quiet film provokes a deep and lasting anger.
Barnardo’s — only briefly mentioned: a name check, a scribble in a notebook, a cog in the machine — has tended to bury the past, but the past haunts the latest chapter of Barnardo’s story.
In February 2010, a full twenty-four years after Humphreys first heard of the “big ship full of kids”, Prime Minister Gordon Brown at last apologised to child migrants — paying tribute to Margaret Humphreys and the Child Migrants Trust.
Barnardo’s then chief executive Martin Narey welcomed Brown’s apology, expressed sympathy with the migrants, but resisted apologising for Barnardo’s part. Instead, Narey said: “This policy was well intentioned and many who advocated it before and after the Second World War sincerely believed migration would offer impoverished children the chance of a radically better life.”
He added: “I hope that today’s events give every one of us an opportunity to reflect on past failures and learn from past mistakes.”
This expression of regret, that it seemed right at the time, did not accept responsibility, own up to or challenge what Barnardo’s officials had done. Their sincerity did not help the children, who might have been better served by alertness and scepticism in the adults charged with their care.
New times, new scandals. Has Barnardo’s learned from past mistakes?
Ten months ago the UK’s new coalition government promised to end the “moral outrage” of immigration child detention, which, it is now widely accepted, causes children lasting psychological harm. But instead of ending detention, the government commissioned a review of the “alternatives” led by the Border Agency’s own director of criminality and detention Dave Wood, a man whose false undermining of the medical evidence of harm is a matter of parliamentary record.
In December the “alternatives” were unveiled: detention, rebranded. According to calculations by Professor Heaven Crawley at the Centre for Migration Policy Research the government’s new “family-friendly pre-departure accommodation” could hold 4,445 children every year.
Last week the Border Agency won planning permission for a “family-friendly” facility in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage, complete with 2.5-metre perimeter fences, electronic gates, “control and restraint” — and Barnardo’s charity workers to “help families prepare for their return”.
Objectors who attended the Council planning meeting (noting councillors’ concerns that a “majestic beech tree” should be protected from the children) claimed Barnardo’s involvement “almost singlehandedly swung the application in UKBA’s favour”.
The Border Agency is cock-a-hoop, trumpeting public approval from “highly respected” Barnardo's. The charity’s new chief executive Anne Marie Carrie admits: “There will be some who say, ‘Why would Barnardo's be involved with this?’”
Indeed there are. Former Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green is among those asking what on earth Barnardo’s is playing at.
That others, who privately confess dismay, fear to speak out, is one measure of Barnardo’s clout.
Yesterday, in response to emailed questions, the charity said:
“Barnardo’s will be providing welfare and social care within the new pre-departure accommodation being established for asylum-seeking families in Crawley. The decision to do so was made by the Chief Executive with the support of Barnardo’s Council and goes right back to our core purpose: Barnardo’s seeks to support the most vulnerable children in the UK. We have agreed to play a role because we believe it is critical that families and children are treated with dignity and respect and able to access high quality support services during this time.”
Among the questions Barnardo’s declined to answer: “What potential problems and conflicts might arise from lending the Barnardo’s name to the UK Border Agency?”
And: “Why did Barnardo’s not seize the opportunity of government’s wish for third-party endorsement to push the government to honour its pledge to end child detention?”
In other words, isn’t Barnardo’s helping to create the situation that makes children vulnerable? Won’t it be party to their distress?
Gordon Brown apologised to the child migrants last year on behalf of Britain. Barnardo’s didn’t apologise, but it did pledge to “take the opportunity to reflect on past failures and learn from past mistakes.” Perhaps they should reflect more deeply, in particular on whether Barnardo’s role should be to keep a proper distance from the government and its agencies. Instead of deploying its reputation to legitimise and endorse the new detention regime by contracting to serve it, Britain’s most powerful children’s charity could be leading the fight against child detention.