Canberra: Australia came under fire from human rights advocates on Friday over its plan to send child asylum seekers to Malaysia without their parents under a refugee swap deal being negotiated with the Malaysian government.
The Australian government wants to deter asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat by sending hundreds of new arrivals to Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur has reached an in-principle agreement to take 800 asylum seekers 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.
Amnesty International said children without families, especially girls, will 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 in a statement.
David Mann, executive director of the Melbourne-based advocacy group Refugee and Immigration Centre, 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.
Last month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Australia of jeopardising asylum seekers` rights through the deal with Malaysia, which has not signed the Refugee Convention or Convention Against Torture.
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.