England’s “migrant children; US “orphan trains”

A little known part of British history is coming to light – its migrant program for young children in England , who were sent to Australia, Canada, and other British Commonwealth countries. Such programs, which began in the late 1800s and persisted well into the 1960s, shipped about 150,000 poor children, orphans, and illegitimate children to Commonweath countries where they were sent to institutions, foster homes, farms, and other places where they worked as laborers.  A House of Commons report published in 1998 noted that “hardship and emotional deprivation were the common lot of child migrants, and that cases of criminal abuse were not infrequent.”

In Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provided an apology for his country, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to issue his own country’s apology for initiating these child migrant programs.

According to the parliamentary report, the shipping out of children was done for a mix of reasons: 1) philanthropic – to remove children from the streets or from parents who posed a serious risk; 2) economic – in England, to lower the budgetary costs of the government providing for neglected children, and in the other countries, to provide a source of cheap labor; 3) racist – as the report states, “the importation of ‘good white stock’  was seen as a desirable policy objective in the developing British Colonies.”  In Victorian England, poor families were moving to the cities, many living in tenements and “rookeries,” or destitute and homeless, in the streets.

The British program mirrors to some extent the migrant program in the U.S. known as the “Orphan Trains,” in which from 100,000 to 200,000 children – mainly from immigrant families in New York – were sent in trains to other states, where they were put into foster homes and institutions or were put to work.  In New York, life for many of the poor, uneducated immigrants was grim, and many children were abandoned because the families could not care for them. The U.S. “Orphan Train” program, begun in 1854 by the Children’s Aid Society, persisted until about 1929. Under the auspices of philanthropic organizations, rather than the government, children, sometimes against the wishes of their parents, were herded onto trains in New York and shipped to 47 other states and Canada.

These programs raise difficult issues.  Does the state or a private entity have a right to remove a child — not yet able to make decisions — from his biological parents or from his environment if the child is homeless or uncared for?  What are a child’s rights and interests in relation to organizations – state or private – that place the child in another environment?  Philosophical and legal questions relating to children and their rights have been debated often in libertarian and other circles.  These issues aren’t easy to resolve with a satisfactory answer.

[Ed.’s note: The mother of one of my close friends was a three-year-old Orphan Train migrant.]