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Australia Frees Three-Year-Old Child Detainee


Australia is under pressure to free all children from its immigration detention camps. The calls follow the release of a Malaysian woman and her three-year-old daughter from a detention center in Sydney, where the little girl has spent her whole life. Her mother was taken into custody in 2001 after being caught traveling on a fake passport.

Virginia Leong and her young daughter have been released from detention on temporary visas until their asylum applications can be processed.

Ms. Leong, a Malaysian, was caught trying to leave Australia using a false passport four years ago and she has been fighting deportation ever since. Her daughter, three-year-old Naomi, has spent her entire life in the Villawood immigration detention center in Sydney.

"I always say that I'm guilty, but one thing is because of my guilt, because of these, Naomi … caught all my punishment," she said. "I mean, double sentence, I can say."

Ms. Leong always has had the option of returning to Malaysia but she says she fought to stay in Australia to be close to her son from a previous relationship. He is an Australian citizen who lives in Sydney.

It is not clear why the government in Canberra has set them free.

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without valid visas are automatically detained while their cases are investigated. The asylum application process can take three years or longer in some cases.

Although Australian voters favor the policy, human rights organizations consider it inhumane.

Refugee advocates say there are concerns about Naomi Leong's mental state because her mother suffered from depression.

Psychiatrist Michael Dudley has treated Naomi since she was a few months old and says detention has been damaging to the girl's development. "She'd become mute and listless and staring into space and banging her head and has a major separation anxiety problem from her mom," said Mr. Dudley.

There are more than 60 child asylum seekers detained along with their parents in Australia. Opposition politicians want the government to release them, arguing that detention is harmful to the children.

The government says the young detainees are well looked after and are better off with their parents. It defends the mandatory detention of asylum seekers on health and security grounds.

Australia accepts around 13,000 legal refugees every year as part of international humanitarian programs.

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