(CNN) -- Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized on Monday to thousands of adults who, as impoverished British children, were brought to Australia with the promise of a better life but found abuse and forced labor.
"My hope today is to reach out to you all on behalf of this nation -- Australia -- and to speak what so often has been unspoken, and to offer this profound apology," Rudd told an audience of former child migrants gathered in the national capital of Canberra and scattered throughout the country.
"To apologize for the pain that has been caused. To apologize for the failure to offer proper care. To apologize for those who have gone before us and ignored your cries for help."
The so-called Forgotten Australians -- children who came from British families struggling with severe poverty or from institutions in the UK -- were brought to Australia in a program that ended 40 years ago.
The program scarred generations of children who were placed in state institutions and orphanages. They later told of being kept in brutal conditions, being physically abused and being forced to work on farms.
"There are tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of these stories," Rudd said, "each with its own hurts, its own humiliations, its own trauma -- and each united by the experience of a childhood without love, of childhood alone."
"Whatever I might say today, the truth is I cannot give you back your childhood. I cannot rewind the clock on your suffering, nor can I erase the past," Rudd added.
"But what I can do with you is celebrate the spirit that has lived within you over the decades -- a spirit that has stubbornly refused to be beaten, a spirit that has turned you into the survivors that you are."