‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
I am one of three funded PhD researchers within the Wilberforce Institute’s ‘Falling Through the Net’ research cluster concerning child migration. My particular area of interest is the forced emigration of British children from the United Kingdom to Australia during the twentieth century. Many of these child migrants had previously been raised within the British care system and were coerced to migrate abroad with the promise of a better quality of life. However, many child migrants were treated poorly, and have shared their experiences of abuse and exploitation while in care overseas.
My dual affiliation with the University of Hull’s Department of History and the Wilberforce Institute has granted me a unique vantage point from which to analyse this topic. Not only have I been able to research the testimony and experiences of former child migrants, but I have also been able to explore how this movement fits into broader issues of slavery and exploitation around the world, both in historic and contemporary societies. This interdisciplinary framework has also helped me to understand that in this case and many others, forced emigration, poverty and exploitation are all one singular human rights issue. This is particularly true in the case of children where discussions surrounding their protection and rights is a relatively recent development in international law.
Events this year, and in particular following the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, have brought many new challenges into my research process. As a student in my first year of research, this was the academic year for me to begin to present tentative ideas at conferences and create networks with researchers in similar fields to mine. However, the cancellation of academic conferences across the board, coupled with travel restrictions both domestically and overseas, have meant that many of these plans are on hold. Fortunately, conferencing apps such as Skype and Zoom, in addition to social media networks including Twitter, have enabled me to remain in contact with my fellow researchers at the Wilberforce Institute as well as to discover any new opportunities to discuss research in online academic forums.
This global disease pandemic has also witnessed the rapid digitisation of archival material by the National Archives and other such repositories, in addition to books and journal articles being made available online to a wider audience. There are however still a number of limitations that are still present in my current methodology. Digitising archival material is a gradual process and much of what I will need to not currently online, and a number of relevant museum exhibitions that were due to open this academic year have been postponed indefinitely. This includes Departures – 400 Years of Emigration from Britain, an exhibition concerning British immigration worldwide due to be held at the Migration Museum in Lewisham, London. It is also impossible to know how long certain restrictions will last and the extent to which this will impact any field work I decide to conduct in my second year of research. These are all factors that I will need to find ways to remedy in the coming months.
Arguably the most profound impact of COVID-19 has had in relation to this topic has been in the process of reuniting former child migrants with their families. In March 2020, the Child Migrants Trust announced that all prospective travel linked to the Family Restoration fund would be halted with immediate effect. The trust, alongside the national governments of Australia and the United Kingdom, have done excellent work in reuniting former child migrants with their long lost families in recent years. This process can already be a difficult one for many former child migrants as some were long unaware that they had living relatives, and sadly the Family Restoration Fund came too late for others whose parents and siblings passed away before they had the chance to reunite.
The emotional toll of bringing families together has been exacerbated by the uncertainly surrounding COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in relation to overseas travel. Given the advanced age of many of these former migrants, these restrictions are understandable and have been put in place with their best health interests at heart. Safety is of course the first priority in these difficult and unprecedented times. Let’s just hope that in the technological era that we live in, former Home Children will be able to find new ways to connect with their families and that their voices to continue to be heard in the ongoing process of reconciliation.