Hearing on 'largest child abuse scandal in Britain' opens in Northern Ireland

LONDON (AFP) - A hearing into the historic transportation of children from Northern Ireland institutions to Australia opened on Monday, sparking calls for a nationwide inquiry into what campaigners called "the largest child abuse scandal in Britain's history".

Around 50 former residents of institutions in Northern Ireland were set to give evidence in a series of hearings in Banbridge, County Down, about the child migration programme that ran from the 1920s until the 1970s.

Documentation examined by the inquiry found that around 140 young children from Northern Ireland, who were in the care of voluntary institutions, religious charities or state bodies, were sent to Australia as child migrants.

Many were allegedly sexually abused in Australia.

The hearings were expected to last for three weeks and form the second part of the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse in Northern Ireland.

The inquiry is set to hear evidence from children who were taken away without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

The International Association of former Child Migrants and their Families, which represents thousands of British child migrants who it says were 'trafficked' overseas, called on Prime Minister David Cameron to launch a full judicial inquiry into similar programmes across the whole of Britain.

"Following the inquiries in Australia and now Northern Ireland, it is time for the British Government to look properly at what we believe is the largest child abuse scandal in the history of the UK," the charity's Norman Johnston said.

"We need answers as to how these schemes were approved, who gave authority for these children, many with families in the UK, so that they could be taken out of the UK to face abuse in Australia," he said.

Then prime minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology in 2009 to around 150,000 children, mainly from deprived backgrounds, who were sent from Britain to Commonwealth countries, where they were often abused and forced into unpaid labour.

Their parents believed their children had gone to live a better life, and the children were sometimes wrongly told that they were orphans.