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Australia Urged to End Detention of Child Asylum Seekers

Refugee groups have criticized the Australian government for continuing to hold hundreds of children in immigration detention. It has been more than two years since the governing Labor party promised not to hold children in custody while their claims for refugee status are processed.

The latest official figures show there are 645 children being held by Australian immigration authorities.

Advocacy groups say children's mental health is being put at risk and are urging the authorities to release the young asylum seekers into the community instead.

Most of the children are not being held in detention centers but in secure accommodation, where their freedoms, including contact with Australian society, are restricted. Ministers call these facilities "alternative places of detention".

However, some analysts say the youngsters should be housed in hostels or allowed to live temporarily with foster parents until their cases are dealt with.

Louise Newman -- a professor of psychiatry at Melbourne's Monash University -- is the head of an panel that advises the government on asylum seekers.

She says holding children under guard in hotels and other temporary accommodation is not appropriate.

"The policy that we have clearly states that detention is a last resort only and that children should, if at all possible, be in community settings, community housing, with appropriate levels of foster care and support,: Newman said. "And, I think what's deeply troubling at the moment is that those options seem to be very remote and not particularly being well explored."

Australia detains most asylum seekers who arrive without official documentation, while their claims are assessed.

Australian officials recently said its network of detention centers was full and that emergency accommodation was being urgently sought.

Among those facilities that are at or over capacity is Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. It houses many Sri Lankan, Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers. Many have arrived by boat, in recent months.

The government says it is increasing the capacity of an immigration center on the outskirts of Melbourne that houses unaccompanied children and families with children. Officials insist that youngsters held in secure accommodation are properly looked after. An immigration department spokeswoman says the welfare and safety and welfare of children is a high priority.

In Western Australia, police are investigating allegations that two children have been sexually abused by a detainee at an immigration facility in the remote gold mining town, Leonora.