Australia’s plan to include children among 800 asylum-seekers to be sent to Malaysia to have their refugee claims assessed has come under attack from refugees and rights advocacy groups.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has confirmed that unaccompanied minors will be included in a plan to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia for processing.
In exchange, Australia will accept about 4,000 registered refugees from the Southeast Asian nation.
“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,” Bowen told ABC TV late on Thursday.
Australia has already been criticized for the yet-to-be finalized scheme because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and following claims that asylum-seekers sent to Malaysia could be caned.
Refugee advocates described the decision to include those aged under 18 in the “swap” as disappointing and potentially a breach of their human rights.
“Under Australian law the [immigration] minister is personally responsible as guardian for the welfare of unaccompanied children,” said David Manne from the Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre.
“These children are here now, the minister has a legal responsibility to act in their best interests,” he said.
“And it’s difficult to see how it could be best for these children to be expelled from Australia to a country that has such a consistently poor record in the treatment of refugees, including children.”
Ian Rintoul, from the Refugees Action Coalition, said the issue highlighted the problems inherent in sending boatpeople offshore for processing.
“I think it shows the human rights tragedy of trying to trade off the rights of one group against another group,” he said.
Amnesty International and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Australia also called on the government to reconsider the decision, saying Canberra would be placing young people in a vulnerable situation.
“To send children to a country where there are no guarantees of access to an education, health care and welfare is seemingly a breach of our legal obligations, as well as lacking care and compassion,” UNICEF Australia chief executive Norman Gillespie said in a statement.
The government said that while it had been a difficult decision it would prevent children risking their lives making the perilous boat journey to Australia, adding that the human rights of all asylum-seekers would be respected.
Defending his decision, Bowen said he never wanted Australia to again have to bury children as a result of a boat accident, as happened in December when a wooden vessel carrying about 90 asylum-seekers sank near Christmas Island.
That vessel disintegrated after smashing into cliffs in rough seas, throwing all onboard in the water and claiming almost 50 lives, including those of children and babies.
Bowen said the deal with Malaysia would reflect a commitment to all asylum-seekers being treated with dignity and respect.
The number of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat topped 6,800 last year and so far 1,437 passengers have arrived on illegal boats this year.
Canberra’s plan to halt the arrivals by sending the asylum-seekers offshore has been compared by the local media to the previous government’s “Pacific Solution,” under which boatpeople were held on the tiny state of Nauru and Manus island in Papua New Guinea, while their claims were assessed.