Vulnerable British children shipped overseas after the Second World War suffered "unacceptable depravity" including torture, sexual abuse and slavery, the first day of the controversial public inquiry into child sexual abuse heard yesterday in the UK.

Thousands of children, many of whom were in care, were relocated to distant corners of the British empire, including New Zealand, only to fall into the hands of sexual predators, the Daily Mail reported.

A case study of the "shameful history" was heard in the first public evidence session of the Independent Inquiry (IICSA) into Child Sexual Abuse yesterday.

The £20 million ($34.5m) probe has been plagued with delays and is already on its fourth chairwoman since it was set up by Theresa May in 2014.

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The inquiry will draw together a staggering 13 different probes, including investigations into alleged abuse at Westminster, in children's homes, within the Anglican and Catholic churches and by alleged abusers such as Lord Greville Janner.

Yesterday it started by considering the physical and sexual abuse suffered by hundreds of children sent abroad after the war - some were falsely told that their parents had died.

Most of the children were sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and what was then Southern Rhodesia, modern-day Zimbabwe.

Eight of these children will give evidence to IICSA chairwoman Alexis Jay over the next week.

Statements from other victims will be read out and some will give evidence via videolink from as far away as Australia.

Some of the evidence will centre on the molestation and rape of boys in facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order, including one notorious home in Western Australia.

Victims were also "ritually" beaten with belts, canes and hockey sticks at homes and schools run by the Fairbridge Society, with one child suffering a broken back and spending three years in hospital.

Failure to act on the reports of abuse abroad meant the UK government was complicit in a "systematic and institutional problem", a representative of one victim told the hearing.

Another former child migrant broke down as he recalled the 'endemic' problem of sexual abuse at the school he was sent to in Molong, Australia.

David Hill, who has waived his anonymity, says the British Government failed the children it allowed to be sent abroad.

He was sent to Fairbridge Farm in New South Wales in 1959 with his two brothers.

He said: "I hope this inquiry can promote an understanding of the long-term consequences and suffering of those who were sexually abused.

"Many never recover and are permanently afflicted with guilt, shame, diminished self-confidence, low self-esteem and trauma."

Australia was the main destination for the majority of the children between 1945 and 1970, many of whom were taken from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The child migration scheme was branded "forced or coerced deportation" by one campaigner.

Aswini Weereratne, of the Child Migrants Trust, said they hoped the evidence to be heard would reflect several points, adding: "There is good evidence the UK government and agencies knew in the 1940s and 50s of the poor standards of care in Australian institutions and in some instances about sexual abuse.

She added: "It is impossible to resist the conclusion that some of what was done there was of quite unacceptable depravity. Terms like sexual abuse are too weak to convey it.
'This was not about truly voluntary migration, but forced or coerced deportation."

The abuse that some of the children sent abroad were said to have suffered included "torture, rape and slavery", Ms Weereratne said.

She added: "Boys and girls experienced a range of assaults, all manner of indecent assaults from inappropriate touching, masturbation, oral sex and then rape and buggery."

The child migration programmes are a case study which is part of the inquiry's protection of children outside the United Kingdom investigation.

The taxpayer-subsidised scheme was said to have been justified by the government as a means of slashing the costs of caring for lone children and meeting labour shortages in the colonies.

Mr Hill said: "We will never be able to undo the great wrong done to these children but what is important to survivors of sexual abuse is, where this inquiry is satisfied with the evidence, to name the villains.

"Many of them are beyond the grave and are therefore beyond the law but it would bring a great deal of comfort to the people who as children were victims of these people if they were named and shamed."

Speaking on behalf of former child migrant Oliver Cosgrove, who was sent to Australia in 1941, Imran Khan said: "(It was) a scheme to populate the empire with good, white British stock and which led to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of countless children, many thousands of miles away from their families.

He added: "Those who were abused tried in vain to tell others, who they hoped and believed might assist them. But they didn't.

"The fact that they knew and the fact that they didn't do anything and the fact that the witness statements are so similar in the accounts they give of abuse can mean only one thing: this was a systematic and institutional problem."

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Samantha Leek QC said: "Child migration is wrong. It should not have been sanctioned or facilitated by the Government.

"Knowing what we know today, it is hard to believe that a policy of child migration could have been justified in any way by the welfare needs of the children involved.

"The lifelong consequences for those involved are a matter of deep and sincere regret.'

At the start of the hearing, counsel to the inquiry, Henrietta Hill QC, said: "In those institutions or schools, child migrants have given evidence they were subject to extremely harsh conditions, hard labour and physical abuse by those responsible for their welfare.

"In addition, there are allegations of widespread and systematic sexual abuse taking place in those institutions, or some of them.

"You are likely to hear very emotional accounts from former child migrants of the decades of pain they have caused.

"The UK government provided partial funding for the child migration scheme, approved the residential institutions and was responsible for consenting to the migration of children sent from local authority care."

In 2010 then prime minister Gordon Brown apologised to the children for their ordeal but was unaware of the systemic sexual abuse they suffered.

He wrote recently: "Hundreds of children - already far from their family and country - were also abused in the children's homes and orphanages to which they were sent. Indeed, we now know some church and charity leaders came from Australia to Britain to handpick British boys for their own gratification through systematic molestation.

"It is clear that at least in the mid-1950s, and probably from 1947, governments did have evidence that abuse was happening and did nothing.'

After Sir Jimmy Savile died in 2011, hundreds came forward to claim they were abused. Photo / Getty Images
After Sir Jimmy Savile died in 2011, hundreds came forward to claim they were abused. Photo / Getty Images