The United Nations is urging Australia not to send any unaccompanied children to Malaysia under a controversial deal to deport asylum seekers. The first group of asylum seekers expected to be subject to the recently signed agreement is likely to be flown from the Australian territory of Christmas Island to Malaysia in the coming days. Canberra says 19 of the 55 asylum seekers are children, or claim to be children. More than 12 say they are travelling alone.
The group of asylum seekers was intercepted by the Australian navy before being taken to Christmas Island Thursday. Canberra says they will be the first unauthorized arrivals expelled from Australia and sent to Malaysia, where their claims for refugee status will be processed.
Around a quarter of the group are thought to be children travelling on their own, which raises sensitive moral and logistical problems for the Australian government.
United Nations is urging Australia not to deport unaccompanied minors because of fears over their safety and well-being.
Norman Gillespie from the U.N. children's agency UNICEF says it is alarming that more than a dozen children who have travelled without any family members could soon be expelled.
“We would really be extremely concerned if any unaccompanied minor would indeed be deported in such a way and we note that it will be a case by case basis and we absolutely depend upon the minister to make the right decision in these instances. It is a trauma to come to Australia in this manner. It is an even greater trauma to be then deported,” he said.
The Australian government says that minors will be dealt with on a "case by case" basis, suggesting that not all unaccompanied children seeking asylum will be sent to Malaysia.
It is expected that children who arrive with their parents or another member of their family will be sent to Malaysia.
But Prime Minister Julia Gillard is talking tough and is refusing to guarantee that unaccompanied minors will remain in Australia.
“There will be no blanket exemptions, there are no blanket exemptions. There will be pre-transfer assessments and they will be undertaken properly by the relevant officials,” said Gillard.
Immigration officials say that in the past adults have posed as children to avoid being sent to an Australian detention center. Bio-metric tests will be carried out on those held on Christmas Island in an attempt to verify their ages.
Immigration is a sensitive issue in Australian politics and the minority Labor government is desperate for the deal with Malaysia to work. Prime Minister Gillard said the agreement would “smash” the business of the people smugglers who have ferried a steady flow of asylum seekers into Australian waters in recent months.
The deal with Malaysia will see Canberra send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 refugees whose claims for protection have been verified by the United Nations.
Since the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of refugees have resettled in Australia, including Jewish migrants fleeing the aftermath of the Holocaust and Vietnamese boat people escaping conflict in their homeland. More recently Sudanese refugees who were displaced by civil war have also been allowed to start new lives.
Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees under various global treaties.