Australian migrants give evidence in Northern Ireland

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Substance abuse, failed relationships and, sometimes, even premature death are some of the devastating results for adults abused as children.


Their stories are being told at Australia’s royal commission into child sexual abuse, but that is not the only place.

Some of their voices are also being heard this week in Northern Ireland, at the biggest inquiry ever held in Britain.

Greg Dyett reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

“Better late than never” is how Tony Costa characterises his journey back to Northern Ireland after first arriving in Australia in 1953 at age 11.

Now 73, he has returned to share his story with the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry.

Tony Costa was among the child migrants sent to Australia under a child-migration program that ran from the 1920s until the 1970s.

“There’s an old saying ‘Better late than never,’ but the reality is that, if we can learn at any time from that appalling experience of some 60 odd years ago … and to do that, we want to see the rights — the wrongs, rather — are being righted by what is called rightful justice.”

Mr Costa, a former mayor of Subiaco, Western Australia, was sent to the Bindoon Boys Home in Western Australia, run at the time by the Christian Brothers.

The inquiry has heard some of the boys were sexually abused.

“Many of these former child migrants, through the scarring of their journey and the trauma and the stress and the degradation, they’ve inherited a number of health issues as a result of the treatment which they’ve received. So, for that reason, I can see the urgency of compensation, because a lot of these men and women, former child migrants, are now in their 70s and on. Whatever comes out of it, if they can learn from that (tale) to ensure that no generation of children would ever be subjected to a repetition of what we went through and, dare I use the word, survived …”

In this week’s hearings, the inquiry was told nuns changed the name of a child migrant before he sailed to Australia to ensure he could not be traced.

The nuns travelled on the ships to Australia, and one is reported to have told the children she hoped the ship would sink as punishment for their misbehaviour.

When they arrived in Fremantle, one of the migrants asked a nun when they would be going home.

The former child migrant told the inquiry:

“She hit me a clout over the ear. We didn’t realise how far Australia was from Ireland. We didn’t at any stage realise that we would not be going home. We were just orphans in their view and had to do what we were told.”

The senior counsel to the inquiry, Christine Smith, QC, says around 130 children were sent to Australia.

“It has proved extremely difficult to obtain precise figures as to how many children from institutions in Northern Ireland, falling within the inquiry’s terms of reference, were sent to Australia, because such records as were kept are not complete. Nevertheless, from the information provided to the inquiry by the Sisters of Nazereth, and from the inquiry’s own searches in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, it appears that approximately 131 children within our terms of reference may have been sent to Australia.”

The retired judge chairing the inquiry, Sir Anthony Hart, has assured the Australian witnesses all their evidence will go to the royal commission in Australia if child abuse is alleged.

Tony Costa says righting the wrongs of the past is important but there are important contemporary considerations, too, as Australia provides refuge to people fleeing conflict zones.

“That’s where I think there’s an urgency why this matter has to be addressed. If we do take these political refugees, we need to give them a guaranteed element of dignity, which is a human right.”