Resilience in Child Refugees: An Historical Study

By Palmer, Glen | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Resilience in Child Refugees: An Historical Study


Palmer, Glen, Australian Journal of Early Childhood


Introduction

In a period of intense introspection in Australia about the separation of children from their families, and of renewed refugee activity, the following research provides insight into some of the long-term effects of separation, war, and ethnic violence on children and families. This is the story of children sent to Australia in the 1930s and early '40s, sent voluntarily by parents to protect them from war and persecution. Giving up children under such circumstances is surely an act of great courage and self-sacrifice. It is also a measure of the severity of the crisis.

Such was the situation in Europe by the late 1930s that Jewish parents, and others threatened by the political extremism of the day, appealed to the world for refuge for even their very young children. Through private arrangements and government schemes, many thousands of children were dislocated from their families and resettled in other countries before the outbreak of war. Britain alone admitted almost 10,000 German and Austrian children in the 10 months leading up to September 1939 (Palmer, 1997). Other countries, the United States and Australia included, were not so generous. In that period of burgeoning child migration from Britain to Australia, child migrants were a highly desirable commodity--but not foreign children. This position was verified in the first year of the war. Having admitted fewer than 50 unaccompanied non-British children and young adolescents through various schemes, the Australian Government responded exuberantly to a 1940 British Government scheme to evacuate British children overseas for the duration of the war. The Australian Government offered to take as many children as Britain could send and to defray all costs. These were neither orphans nor child migrants, but children whose parents were voluntarily sending them to Australia to escape the bombing and threatened invasion of Britain. Numerous government documents reveal that the evacuated children were seen as ambassadors for future British migration to Australia; in particular, it was hoped the children would attract their families to Australia after the war:

   This is the first chapter in a new volume of Overseas Settlement conceived
   on wise lines ... Not for the first time has war unexpectedly led to
   developments that no-one could foresee and the benefits of which have
   enriched nations ... From this war the Empire will emerge closer knit, its
   people tempered in the fires of sacrifice ... The children evacuated
   overseas ... will have played no small part.(1)

Five hundred and seventy-seven British children entered Australia before the Overseas Children Scheme was suspended because of dangers to shipping imposed by the war (Palmer, 1997). On arrival, the children were placed in foster homes across Australia--either with relatives or with some of the many thousands of Australian families that had volunteered their services.

By contrast, the likelihood of attracting their families to settle in Australia after the war had a decidedly negative impact on non-British children seeking refuge. These children were viewed as having the potential to begin a chain of unwanted foreign migration (Palmer, 1997). Thus, when permission was finally given in March 1939 for the admission of a small number of young German Jewish children, the condition of entry was that they all be `double orphans'--that is, they must have neither parent living (Palmer, 1997). One group of 17 German Jewish children, aged seven to 12 years, escaped this condition. They arrived in Melbourne in July 1939, and were provided for by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society at a group home in Balwyn. However, the strict regulations imposed by Australia, and the limited time remaining before the outbreak of World War II, prevented the movement of any other young non-British children to Australia. Apart from the 17 German-Jewish children, several groups of adolescents from Germany, Austria, and Poland also arrived under various schemes in the months preceding the outbreak of hostilities. …

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