Canberra: A United Nations organisation urged Australia on Friday not to expel 14 asylum-seeking children to Malaysia as part of a refugee swap deal, but the government said such exceptions would encourage people smugglers to send "boatloads of children”.
The 14 children are among 55 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan who arrived by boat on Thursday at an immigration detention camp on the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Next week, the group is to become the first to be sent to Malaysia under a new deal aimed at deterring other asylum seekers from paying people smugglers to bring them to Australia by boat.
Under the deal, Australia will send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia over four years in exchange for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees from among 93,000 currently languishing in the Southeast Asian nation.
Norman Gillespie, chief executive of UNICEF Australia, on Friday urged Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to ensure that no child is sent to Malaysia without a parent or guardian.
"We would really be extremely concerned if any unaccompanied minor would indeed be deported in such a way," Gillespie told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
Bowen said no decision had been made as of Friday to let any of the children stay and have their asylum applications processed in Australia.
"If you have blanket exemptions, people smugglers would exploit that loophole and put children on boats and we`d be dealing with the dangerous situation of boatloads of children," Bowen told ABC.
Bowen has said vulnerable asylum seekers — such as unaccompanied children, pregnant women and the elderly — would be considered for exemptions from deportation on a case-by-case basis.
The Australian newspaper reported this week that people smugglers were advising asylum seekers transiting through Malaysia and Indonesia that Australia would not deport children who travelled by boat alone.
Parents were being urged to send their children by boat and follow them after they had been accepted as refugees in Australia.
Senior opposition lawmaker Joe Hockey said sending children unaccompanied to Australia was an evil that the government intended to compound.
"Ultimately, we`ve got to put the kids first here," Hockey told Seven Network television.
The government plans to post video on YouTube and Facebook of the first group of asylum seekers boarding a flight to Malaysia as a deterrent to others.