Australia has begun releasing the last children remaining in its controversial immigration centers, allowing young detainees and their families to live in the community while their applications for asylum are processed. The detention of children has been one of the most criticized aspects of the government's immigration policies.

The Australian government said Thursday all children held in its immigration camps will be freed by the end of this week.

Prime Minister John Howard announced the change in policy in June.

The government had been severely criticized by international human rights organizations, doctors and some of its own lawmakers, who insist the mandatory detention policy for illegal immigrants was damaging children.

Refugee advocate, Paul Boylan, says the removal of young detainees from immigration centers is a very positive step.

"It is fantastic that we are not going to keep children in Australia behind razor wire," he said. "There was never any reason for us to detain children in the way we have."

The number of asylum seekers heading illegally to Australia has fallen to barely a trickle in the last four years after the government increased sea patrols and toughened policies for dealing with immigrants who reached the country.

On Thursday there were 42 children in detention in Australia.

The issue has been controversial in terms of which was better for the child - remaining with their families in the camps or being separated from their parents.

They will now be allowed to live in community housing with their families. However, technically they remain in detention while their cases are assessed and they will be required to report their movements to immigration officers.

The automatic detention of asylum seekers has been in place in Australia since the early 1990s. The authorities have always stressed the policy was necessary so that health and security checks could be undertaken before cases were decided.

Mandatory detention for most adult asylum seekers will continue.