Australia will send children to Malaysia in asylum deal

January 2010 photo released by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project shows a young boy, one of nine children belonging to a single mother fleeing an abusive situation in Amman, Jordan
Image caption Refugee groups say children are at risk in Malaysia detention

The authorities in Australia have announced plans to send unaccompanied children seeking asylum to Malaysia.

They would be held in detention centres while their cases are processed.

Australia's immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said it would send a strong message to deter people-smugglers selling passage to asylum seekers.

The move is part of a controversial swap being negotiated with Malaysia under which some Malaysia-based refugees would be settled in Australia.

"I don't want unaccompanied minors, I don't want children getting on boats to come to Australia thinking or knowing that there is some sort of exemption in place," Mr Bown told ABC TV late on Thursday.

He said it would send a strong message and break the business model of the people smugglers who sell passage to asylum seekers hoping to start a new life in Australia.

He spoke of how he hoped he would never again have to see children buried as a result of an overloaded boat trying to reach Australia's shores. Last December, an asylum-seekers' boat smashed onto rocks at Christmas Island, killing at least 30 people, including children and babies.

Deep concerns

However, the plan has sparked outrage and serious fears for the safety of unaccompanied minors - particularly young girls.

Girls are among nine unaccompanied minors currently being held at Australia's offshore detention centre on Christmas Island, and who are in line to be sent to Malaysia.

"The minister forgets that he is legally the guardian of unaccompanied minors," Green Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

"The minister, for the sake of a political quick-fix, is prepared to expend the rights and obligations he should be offering to these very, very vulnerable children."

Norman Gillespie, the chief executive for the UN children's agency Unicef in Australia, said he was "dismayed and shocked" by Mr Bowen's announcement.

"This really looks extremely callous and lacking in all forms of compassion," Mr Gillespie told ABC radio.

Amnesty International has said unaccompanied women and girls in Malaysian detention centres are prey to gangs and unscrupulous officials.

"On top of the well-documented human rights abuses faced by all asylum seekers in Malaysia, unaccompanied women and girls face extraordinary levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment," Amnesty spokesman Graham Thom said.

Australia's human rights watchdog has called for an end to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, citing suicides, riots and depression.

UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for an end to mandatory detention and spoke of a "racist" undercurrent in Australia.

She has also been critical of Australian politicians for demonising asylum seekers for domestic political gain.

But Australia's foreign minister Kevin Rudd said the plan had backing from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Office of Migration.

"The key thing is we're taking kids out of mandatory detention, we are making sure that processing times are accelerated so that once basic checks are undertaken there is a way through this," he said.

UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said the "announcement is not something that we were informed about in advance".

"We are not able to lend our support to the text as it currently stands because of the absence of the operating protection safeguards we have been calling for," he said in a statement.

"UNHCR has always stipulated that one of our specific requirements with regard to the transfers is that protection safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable groups, especially unaccompanied children."

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