Give us your children

Taking children away from their homes, families, and communities has caused a lot of pain and sadness over the centuries.

In 1873, 26 waifs and strays, from the poorest backgrounds imaginable in the industrial heart of Birmingham, set sail for Toronto, Canada, some 4,000 miles away.  The average age of a child migrant was eight but some as young as two were sent.  It is estimated that around 13% of Canada’s population is descended from British ‘Home Children’, 130,000 of whom were sent from all over the UK.

In the UK there is The Lost Children Project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which documents how many families were separated, with some children remaining in the UK while their siblings were sent to Canada. Where siblings sailed together, most of them were separated once in Canada. The project has connected families both in the UK and Canada, many of whom had no knowledge of their living relatives across the Atlantic.

We too have had a similar story. In the 1960s, three brothers from Malta were separated at a young age. They ended up in Tardun, Western Australia, as migrants forming part of a child migration scheme. Their story forms the basis of  ‘Who Would You Tell?’, a documentary directed by Dery Sultana, produced by Ramon Mizzi with film and photography by Alexis Mizzi, that was screened in Gozo recently. 

The documentary was five years in the making, and though it received some funding from the Malta Film Fund in 2017, it was largely self-funded. It has been accepted in the Melbourne, Greece, and Biografilm festivals, but its crowning achievement was the SpeciaL Jury Award at the 2024 German International Film Festival.

Co-produced by Fish Isle Films and Strada Reali, the documentary tells the brothers’ story as the brothers themselves – Raphael, Peter, and Manny – reflect on their stolen childhood and how the sexual, emotional, and physical abuse they experienced shaped their entire life.  What was supposed to be a second chance turned into a lifetime of regret, pain, and missed opportunities that deeply affected their journey to adulthood, says the director.

Raphael (9), Manny (13) and Peter Ellul (15) found themselves on a ship to Australia in 1960.

“We often hear many success stories of migrants who found their fortune in Australia, yet there have also been many other less fortunate migrants to Australia, not least of all the Tardun brothers,” the director told the Times of Malta. These young boys were shipped to Australia by the Catholic Church to ostensibly help them escape from Malta’s dire situation in those years. What was meant to be a paradise with a bright future turned out to be a living hell filled with exploitation and constant abuse.

Sultana thows a shining light on the brothers’ suffering but acknowledges that it doesn’t make their memories any less traumatic. He hopes that through their testimony there will be hope that one can prevent these abuses from happening again. The director himself suffered clerical abuse as a boy and is himself a Maltese migrant.


The story reminds me of an infamous one concerning a home in Bessborough, near Cork, where more than 900 children died between the 1920s and 1960s. The children just disappeared from Sean Ross Abbey which was run by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They were buried there without a grave in the grounds of a home for single mothers and babies ̶ one that typified the shocking mistreatment suffered by women who became pregnant out of wedlock and were placed in Catholic institutions until the 1980s.

In Australia in the 1900s, many indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. It is estimated that as many as one in three indigenous children were taken, affecting most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia. They were refused access to their family and were stopped from speaking their native language and using their birth name. The government didn’t keep records of birth dates or place of birth of many of the children.

Now we have the same thing happening in Ukraine. The government in Kyiv estimates that at least 19,500 Ukrainian children have been deported and forcibly displaced from their homes to Russia and Russian-occupied territories since the full scale invasion began in February 2022 ̶ of those only 388 have returned home. Putin and his criminal associates have a lot to answer for.

Childhood traumas

Taking children away from their homes, families, and communities has caused a lot of pain and sadness over the centuries. Survivors of stolen generations have suffered a huge amount of grief and trauma, losing their connections to family, identity, land, language, and culture.

I remember that in school we were taught about Captain Cook discovering Australia, Christopher Colombo finding the New Continent, and Hernán Cortés and his conquest of Mesoamerica ̶ the history teachers and textbooks made it seem so adventurous and alluring, the explorers and their crews offering new lifetime opportunities to the “savages” and heathens. The introduction of deadly diseases and wholesale destruction, if at all mentioned, were what nowadays we would call collateral damage. Those expeditions surely were traumatic for indigenous children. Later, those same Europeans “saved” children from Africa and transported them to plantations in the New World and elsewhere where they would be converted to The Faith and slave their lives away in the service of the White Man.

Even later, one-and-a-half million Jewish and non-Jewish children were abducted and transported to the concentration camps in Germany and conquered countries. To salve our consciences, we were told to blame it all on the Nazis, I suppose as different from the Germans and other European nationals who collaborated with them. We certainly know how to wash our dirty linen and blame the dirt on others.

Photo: TASS via Getty Images

The search begins…

Why don’t we teach our children this history, rather than the fairy-tales of European exploits? I think the Education Ministry should take it upon itself to have ‘Who Would You Tell?’ screened in all schools and encourage the students to discuss the theme and learn what a child feels when he/she is stolen.

“They had taken away my family!
The child within me cried,
The stolen life, the agony
Of many a year gone by.

“The cover up; the pretence.
The falsehood: All those lies.
Didn’t they know I’d find out the truth one day,
And now I just ask WHY?”

(The Search Begins, aboriginal poem by Pauline Mcleod, 1994)

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