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The stream of immigrants who were forced from England to Australia continued for 20 years. Many left behind their parents, their pasts, their very identities. They went because they were told that the sun never sets there, that fruits grow on the side of the road, that they would live in a white cottage overlooking the ocean and ride a horse to school. They believed these stories because they were young and impressionable. They were, after all, children. What these wards of the state found was often much darker than the picture painted by their caretakers. Many were forced into labor and often abused, emotionally, sexually and physically. Now they want to know who they are. Ninety-three of the thousands of children who were sent to Australia between 1947 and 1967 are suing the British government in the European Court of Human Rights, with the help of Robert Nelson of San Francisco, Calif.’s Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein. The complaint, filed in November, centers around the European Union’s human rights guarantees, which include a “right to family.” The former child immigrants allege that the British government failed to “supply crucial information that would have enabled the applicant to find or find far earlier their families.” The children, in the care of charities and church-run organizations, were shipped overseas as part of a now-reviled tradition in England that dates to the 1600s, when children, some of whom were kidnapped, were indentured primarily in American colonies. The tradition wasn’t ended until 1967. Most of the children over the years were sent to Canada, and by the time the policy was ended there in the 1920s, as many as 100,000 had crossed the Atlantic. Some have speculated that more than 10 percent of Canada’s population is descended from English child immigrants. The suit, focusing on immigration to Australia in the second half of the 20th century, is not challenging the immigration policy itself, but the alleged failure of Britain and publicly funded charitable organizations to open their files for former immigrants. Although Britain is coming to terms with the history of child immigration, many former immigrants were stalled in their efforts to obtain their files, which were often incomplete. For example, many children were told by the state that their parents were dead when they were not and, in fact, had tried to contact them. The lack of information resulted in practical problems for the former immigrants, the suit alleges. Without links to the past, for example, immigrants have had difficulty researching family medical histories or obtaining marriage licenses. “The deliberate withholding of information not only impacted severely upon the psychological sense of identity of the former migrant concerned and prevented a restoration of normal family ties that had been disrupted by the system established and run by the U.K. government, it could have an effect upon health and created or compounded difficulties of a practical nature such as obtaining citizenship or obtaining official documentation,” the complaint reads. In 1998, the British House of Commons conducted an investigation into the matter, which Lieff Cabraser is relying on heavily in its suit. Lawyers also go to lengths to point out that the case, even if it is about access to information, must be viewed against the harrowing backdrop of the child immigration policy and its consequences, and if it proceeds, promises a further rendering of an already painful picture of England’s past.

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