Reuters International

By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's lower house of parliament approved on Wednesday compensation for thousands of people who were removed from their families as children and often forced to do hard physical labour because the state deemed their parents unfit to care for them.

Under a practise now viewed as cruel and discriminatory that ran from the 19th century until 1981, the "Verdingkinder" or "contract children" mostly came from poor urban families. Some were born illegitimate. Many were put to work on farms and faced adoption or sterilisation.

The bill approved by the lower house earmarks 300 million Swiss francs (£211.7 million), or around 20,000 to 25,000 francs for each of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 victims still alive. It must still be approved by the upper house of parliament.

The bill followed a public initiative launched in 2014 by entrepreneur Guido Fluri and backed by members of parliament from all of Switzerland's political parties.

"I'm proud of Switzerland," Fluri told broadcaster SRF after Wednesday's vote, adding that time was now of the essence to compensate the victims, many of whom are now elderly and often in poor health.

Historians say the Swiss authorities' "contract children" policy affected hundreds of thousands of people over the decades. For one year alone in the 1930s, 30,000 children were placed in foster families across Switzerland.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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 Reuters International