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 in 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.

Sir Anthony 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 probing claims that the process for sending young people was abusive and criticisms of religious and state institutions for sending them and government in Australia and the UK for permitting it.

Christine Smith QC, barrister representing the inquiry, said: "They allege they were subjected to serious abuse in institutions, many lost all contact with their parents and siblings although after many years and much effort some were able to re-establish some contact with relatives."

Before they went children were medically examined, characteristics including intelligence assessed in at least one case.

In some instances the consent of parents was sought, in others the sisters were unable to show that permission was looked for.

One inspection, in the 1940s by the Curtis Care of Children Committee, said many children's homes in Australia provided much better prospects than in Northern Ireland and were suitable enough.

But it warned local government authorities in Northern Ireland had taken very little interest in the scheme.

It added if they had the same opportunity of inspecting they would have no reservations about sending a regular flow of migrants.

However another report, the 1956 Ross Factfinding Mission in 1956 by British inspectors, criticised five unsatisfactory premises, the isolation of homes and siblings separated. It added that not all staff employed sufficient quality of child care methods.

Ms Smith said the inquiry needed to consider what efforts the sisters made to keep informed about children's progress in Australia.

"It is a common complaint by migrants that they received no letters from home, that letters were kept from them if they were sent and that their parents in many instances were unaware that the children were sent to Australia. People said that they had been deceived."

The inquiry is investigating what was the reason for participating in the schemes by the sisters and other organisations and what steps they took to inform themselves of conditions in Australia. Other questions included:

:: On what basis were participants selected for migration?

:: Were children selected because their parents did not contribute financially or on the basis of physical health?

:: Were efforts made to explain the implications of the scheme to parents and did they try to obtain their consent?

:: Was the Northern Ireland Government consulted by the Sisters of Nazareth?

Hearings are expected to take three weeks.

The HIA is the biggest public inquiry into child abuse ever held in the UK and is investigating claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as childhood neglect.

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