Children in institutions in Northern Ireland were exported to Australia like “baby convicts”, a witness has told a public inquiry into historical abuse.
The Sisters of Nazareth order of Catholic nuns was responsible for the removal of 111 child migrants aged as young as five before and after the Second World War, some of whom faced grave sexual and physical violence after arrival. Another 20 were sent by other institutions.
In some cases parental consent was not sought, migrants were separated from siblings and some deprived of their real identities by withholding of birth certificates, a lawyer for the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry said.
Reasons for transport included boosting “Catholicisation” or other religious authority in the colonies, propping up the number of white inhabitants of the Empire or saving money and emptying overcrowded workhouses, the investigation heard.
A statement from one witness said: “We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts.”
The inquiry was established by ministers in Northern Ireland following a long lobby campaign by alleged victims.
Survivors have given graphic details of their ordeals, according to inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hart. Approximately 130 young children, in the care of religious voluntary institutions or state bodies after being orphaned or taken away from unmarried mothers, became child migrants, most in the decade after the war.
The experiences of around 50 of them will be examined in person or via video-link and their statements furnished to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.
Institutions supported the migration schemes due to concern for the child and for the community and the religious and moral welfare of the young person, a lawyer told the inquiry.
Removal from Britain removed the danger posed by remaining at an unsuitable home or in an institution. Britain was over-populated whereas the British colonies were under-populated, with the prospect of jobs in homes and on farms.
The Sisters of Nazareth, based in Londonderry and Belfast, sent the most children, 111 between 1938 and 1956.
Many were Queensland-bound in eastern Australia because it was seen as a very Catholic state and considered best for the girls. Others went to Fremantle near Perth or other parts of Western Australia.
A few were sent to Australia by county welfare committees or by voluntary organisations, such as Dr Barnardos or Manor House children’s home in Lisburn, Co Down.
A witness, who has since died, submitted a statement to the inquiry.
He said: “My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me. I have always wondered what it would have been like to have had a family, a mother and father and brothers and sisters.
“I never got the chance to find out because I was sent to Australia.
“It is hard to understand why they did it, I know the theory, to populate Australia.
“I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another. I found it very hard to show affection to my children when they were young.
“I have a nightmare every night of my life; I relive my past.”
The inquiry panel, sitting in Banbridge, Co Down, is considering cases between 1922, the foundation of Northern Ireland, and 1995.
The inquiry is limited to what happened to children in institutions in Northern Ireland and does not have the power to investigate what befell migrants in Australian institutions.
Chairman Sir Anthony Hart. said: “That does not mean that their accounts of their experiences in Australia will be swept under the carpet. I want to assure them that will not be the case.”
The inquiry is investigating what was the reason for participating in the schemes by the Sisters of Nazareth and other organisations, and what steps they took to inform themselves of conditions in Australia. Hearings are expected to take three weeks.
The Historical Institutional Abuse is the biggest public inquiry into child abuse ever held in the UK.