Australia came under fire from the U.N. children's aid agency and human rights advocates Friday over its plan to send unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Malaysia under a refugee swap deal being negotiated with the Southeast Asian nation.
Australia wants to deter asylum seekers from traveling to the continent by boat by sending hundreds of new arrivals to Malaysia. The Malaysian government has reached an in-principle agreement to take 800 off Australian hands in return for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees from among more than 90,000 languishing in Malaysia.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed that the 800 will include vulnerable children who make the perilous boat journey to Australia without parents or adult guardians.
"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 Australian Broadcasting Corp. television late Thursday.
UNICEF Australia chief executive Norman Gillespie said his agency had been seeking assurances from the government that children would not be sent to Malaysia and was "dismayed and shocked" by Bowen's announcement.
"This really looks extremely callous and lacking in all forms of compassion," Gillespie told ABC radio.
According to a Malaysian draft of the proposed agreed, seen by The Associated Press on Friday, Malaysia is prepared to accept unaccompanied children from Australia.
The draft, dated May 23, suggests that procedures be developed "to deal with the special needs of vulnerable cases including unaccompanied minors."
The document makes no mention of human rights, but commits Malaysia to treating asylum seekers from Australia "with dignity and respect."
Risk of abuse
Last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Australia of jeopardizing asylum seekers' rights through the deal with Malaysia, which has not signed the Refugee Convention or Convention Against Torture.
Amnesty International said children without families, especially girls, would be targeted by gangs and officials in Malaysia.
"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.
David Mann, executive director of the Melbourne-based advocacy group Refugee and Immigration Center, said that as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is obliged to act in child asylum seekers' best interests.
"Having signed the Refugee Convention and other international treaties for the protection of children, it's difficult to see how it would be best to expel children unaccompanied from Australia to a country like Malaysia that hasn't signed up to human rights standards and in fact has a poor track record in relation to the treatment of children in the country," Mann told ABC.
It is not clear how many of the more than 6,200 asylum seekers who arrived in Australian by boat last year were unaccompanied children. But many of the new arrivals have extended family in Australia who have been accepted as refugees and provide support networks.
Australia has long attracted people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a starting point for a dangerous sea journey to Australia.