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UK apologizes over 'shameful' child migration program

  • Around 8,200 children sent to Australia and other Commonwealth countries
  • Children, some as young as three, came from impoverished families, care homes
  • Many suffered abuse, forced labor; some were told they were orphans
  • British apology follows last year's apology by Australian PM Kevin Rudd

London, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the UK government Wednesday over a controversial child migration policy which saw thousands of children separated from their families and sent to Australia and other Commonwealth countries.

The so-called "Forgotten Australians" were British children brought up by impoverished families or living in care homes who were shipped to Australia with the promise of a better life.

But many ended up in institutions and orphanages, suffering abuse and forced labor. They later told of being kept in brutal conditions, being physically abused and being forced to work on farms. Many were wrongly told they were orphans, with brothers and sisters separated at dock side and sent to different parts of the country.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Brown called the migration program a "shameful episode of history" and said its victims had been robbed of their childhoods. He said he would meet former child migrants to apologize to them personally.

"To all those former child migrants and their families, to those here with us today and those across the world, to each and every one I say we are truly sorry. They were let down," Brown said.

"We are sorry that they were allowed to be sent away at the time they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them this country turned its back. And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved."

Brown also announced the establishment of a £6 million ($9.2 million) fund to help former child migrants trace their families.

Around 7,000 children between the ages of three and 14 were sent to Australia between the end of World War II and 1967 when the child migration program was abolished. Another 1,200 are estimated to have been sent to New Zealand, Canada and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Many young people over the age of 15 were also sent away.

Child migrant campaigners estimate that more than 130,000 may have been affected by similar policies implemented since the 19th century.

"For many former child migrants and their families, the apology will help to heal a painful past," said Harold Haig, secretary of the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families.

Child migrants: In their words

Video: Forced into child labor

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to former child migrants in Canberra last November.

Wednesday's apology by Brown was witnessed by 56 former child migrants, many traveling from Australia, as well as family members. Descendents of children sent to Canada were also invited, the Child Migrant Trust said.

Michael Hennessy, who was sent to Australia in 1947 at the age of 11, said he had lived in "constant terror" of the severe violence inflicted as routine punishments on the children in the orphanage where he grew up.

Australian child migrants: In their own words

He said it took him 62 years to trace his mother after being told he was an orphan and sent away without a birth certificate or correct records of his name or date of birth.

"I sincerely congratulate the UK government on this historic initiative," said Hennessy. "We are England's flesh and blood and we are just looking for justice and to be recognized by our country. We want people to know and remember what happened -- so they can learn from the past."

Margaret Gallagher, who left the UK for Australia in 1955 aged 12, said the apology was "long overdue but welcome."

CNN's Simon Hooper and Agnes Teh contributed to this report.