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Child abuse survivor urges inquiry to ‘name the villains’

The national child abuse inquiry has been urged at the opening of its public evidence sessions to name and shame the perpetrators of the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of British children forcibly deported to Australia by the UK government and leading churches and charities.

David Hill, one of more than 4,000 children who were sent to Australia and other Commonwealth nations from 1947 to the 1970s, waived his anonymity at the opening of the independent inquiry on Monday to make an emotional call for justice for victims.

Hill is one of 22 men and women who will give evidence either in person or in written testimony about the sexual and physical abuse they experienced when they were sent to Australia as part of the child migrant programme.

He told the chair, Alexis Jay: “We will never be able to undo the wrongdoing to these children. But what is important to survivors of sexual abuse is where the inquiry is satisfied with the evidence, name the villains.

“Many of them are beyond the grave, but it would bring a great deal of comfort to the people who as children were their victims if they were named and shamed.”

Hill appeared in the inquiry hearing room in central London with another survivor who has given up his right to anonymity, Oliver Cosgrove. Cosgrove was deported by the British state at the age of four. His lawyer, Imran Khan, said there would be no defence for institutions to say it had taken place a long time ago.

“When was it that the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children was OK? Not now, not then, not ever.”

Other survivors were seated in the public gallery at the start of a nine-day hearing dominated by the voices of people sexually abused from as young as two and three years old, after the British government sent them away from their parents into domestic and labour servitude in Australia and other Commonwealth countries.

Henrietta Hill, QC, counsel to the inquiry, said it was the first time the sexual abuse of the former child migrants had been investigated in a public forum in the UK.

She said the focus of the investigation was from 1947 onwards when more than 4,000 children were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and southern Rhodesia.

There were many reasons for child migration, she said. It was carried out by the British government and leading churches and charities including Barnardo’s, the Church of England Children’s Society, Cornwall county council and the Sisters of Nazareth. But it was not without its critics at the time, and the inquiry heard that in 1956 a blacklist of institutions was drawn up by the British government after evidence of sexual and physical abuse came to light. It was not acted upon following political pressure from many of the charities and agencies involved.

The QC said cutting the cost to the taxpayer of looking after deprived children and providing white Anglo-Saxon labour for the colonies was one reason for the programme. Between the mid-19th century and the 1970s more than 100,000 children were sent to the colonies.

They were taken from their parents, foster families and children’s homes, put on to ships and not told what was happening.

Some who have given testimony to the inquiry said they were abused both in England before their departure and in transit to the Commonwealth, she said.

“You are likely to hear very emotional accounts from former child migrants of the decades of pain their experiences have caused,” she said.

Hill said one key issue the inquiry would consider was reparation and whether responses to date had been adequate. In Australia victims from the Fairbridge Farm school in Molong won a settlement from the state and federal governments of more than $20m last year. But there has been no compensation paid by the British government to the children the state deported in such numbers.

Aswini Weereratne QC, for the Child Migrant Trust which brought the issue of the forced migration of tens of thousands of UK children to light decades ago, said the 22 survivors who would give evidence had been sent from all over the country.

“It remains of fundamental importance for them … to have their experiences heard and acknowledged in England and to have the British public share their sense of sorrow and outrage,” Weereratne said.

“There is no valid argument that their treatment reflected the practice of the time… This was not about voluntary migration, but about forced deportation.”

She said of the one of the survivors giving evidence was five years old when they were deported from Surrey, another had been taken from Swansea and placed in Western Australia and another was taken from Cornwall and sent to New South Wales.

“Many were subjected to crimes; torture, rape and slavery … From their evidence a number of common themes emerge. They and their families were lied to, many parents were told that their children had been adopted by loving families, some children were told their parents were dead. Some have learnt after years of searching for their records that their parents tried to get them back. One foster mother campaigned to have her foster daughter returned to her from Australia.”

One survivor, known as A6, believed she was deported after telling the Reverend Mother at her Catholic home about her sexual abuse there.

David Hill said he was sent to Australia to be brought up by the Fairbridge Farm school, with his twin brother and older brother after the British government had drawn up its blacklist of institutions where there was evidence of abuse. He said he estimated 60% of children who were sent to Fairbridge Farm school were sexually abused.

“It was endemic,” Hill said. “I hope this inquiry can promote understanding of the long-term consequences and suffering of those who were sexually abused. Many never recover.”

For the government, Samantha Leek QC said: “Child migration is wrong. It should not have been sanctioned or facilitated … The lifelong consequences for those involved are a matter of deep and sincere regret.”