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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 16:06 GMT
Plight of NI's 'lost' children
Migrant children pictured leaving for a new life
Migrant children pictured leaving for a new life
BBC NI Spotlight reporter Vincent Kearney reports on the heartache of Northern Ireland's "lost" children, separated from their families for years after the promise of a new life in the sun.

More than 7,000 children who were in care homes in the United Kingdom were sent to Australia as part of a government migration scheme after the Second World War.

While other agencies also sent children, the majority were migrated by the Sisters of Nazareth from children's homes in Belfast and Londonderry.

Stripped of their identity, many are now desperately searching for the families they had to leave behind.

Gemma and Patrick are searching for their mother
Gemma and Patrick are searching for their mother
Gemma Maguire was one of those children. She, her two sisters and brother were put into care in Belfast. All four children were then sent to Western Australia.

When they arrived, they were split up and moved to different parts of the country. They gradually lost touch.

Gemma knew her brother had been sent to Bindoon, a notorious boys' home north of Perth run by the Christian Brothers.

She wrote to him there - but her letters were never passed on to him.

Forty years later, after a long and frustrating search, Gemma and her brother were reunited.

Now that she has found her brother, Gemma is anxious to be reunited with her mother.

Bindoon boys' home
Patrick was sent to Bindoon boys' home
She said: "I'd just love to find mum, I'd just love to, I've just missed her so much. I just wonder what she looks like... it means everything to me."

Unlike the Maguire family, the majority of the children sent to Australia, went without the consent or knowledge of their families.

Many of those sent from Belfast and Londonderry are demanding to know why the church was able to send them to the other side of the world while the authorities apparently turned a blind eye.

Until now, the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Nazareth have said little about their role in what many regard as one of the most shameful episodes in their history.

In an unprecedented response, the Sisters of Nazareth spoke to Spotlight about the order's role in the scheme.

Many of the children were forced to work long hours
Many of the children were forced to work long hours
Sister Breda from the order said she believed the nuns were trying to act in the best interests of the children.

She said: "They believed then, that it was a golden opportunity for those children, because unemployment was rife, it was difficult to place the children.

"And they were sure the children would be educated and would probably get trades."

There is a strong feeling that the British Government should provide compensation for what the migrants regard as their stolen childhood.

Following an inquiry in 1998, the government expressed regret, but has so far refused to pay out.

Now 93 former migrants, including a number from Northern Ireland have lodged cases in the European court. They are suing for alleged breach of human rights.

However, for the migrants, the most important issue is finding family. For those still searching time as well as hope is running out.

The Lost Children, Spotlight 2305 GMT Tuesday BBC One.

See also:

19 Jun 98 | Asia-Pacific
Deported children seek justice
09 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
Australian orphanages 'abused children'
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