LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on Wednesday for past British policies of shipping thousands of poor children abroad, mostly without their parents' knowledge, to former colonies where many suffered abuse.
Thousands were sent from orphanages and institutions in Britain to Commonwealth countries, mainly Australia and Canada, under the Child Migrants Programme which ended 40 years ago.
Siblings were often split up, some children were lied to and told they were orphans, while their parents had no idea where they had been sent.
Many were placed in children's homes where they suffered physical and sexual abuse, or were used as laborers on farms. The authorities deliberately changed children's names and birthdays so it was impossible for families to be reunited.
"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 today we are truly sorry," Brown told parliament, adding it was a "shameful episode of history."
"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."
The Child Migrants Trust estimates that some 130,000 children aged 3 to 14 were sent from Britain to its colonies during the enforced settlement policy which ran from 1930 to 1970 with the stated aim of giving the youngsters a better life.
Rex Wade was sent to Australia when he was 11 and put in a children's home in Tasmania. He described it as a "military camp," while those in other homes were used as "slave labor."
"There was no love, there was no kindness. The punishments were incredible," he told BBC TV. "I blamed myself for years that I must have done something really bad to be shipped away to another country. I didn't even know I had a mother."
The Child Migrants Trust's Director Margaret Humphreys said the apology had taken a long time to come because there had been so much denial about the policy.
"I think the cruelest deception of all was to tell hundreds of young children 4, 5, 6, 7 years of age that their parents were dead, that their country didn't want them, she told BBC TV.
Brown's apology echoed that made by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last November when he also said sorry for the abuse and suffering of those children in his country.
Brown said a 6 million pound ($9.27 million) fund would now be set up to help those affected retrace their families.
"We cannot change history, but I believe that by confronting the failings of the past we can show we are determined to do all we can to heal the wounds," he said.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton