Australia softens policy on child asylum seekers

Australia's government said Monday that it has softened its policy on sending unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Malaysia after scathing criticism from U.N. agencies and human rights advocates.

All children will be considered on a case-by-case basis under a refugee swap being negotiated with Malaysia to deter future asylum seekers from traveling to Australia by boat, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"We'll have appropriate measures in place on an individual basis to deal with what are a relatively small number of cases of unaccompanied minors," Bowen said of the government's decision over the weekend to change its stance.

The government had argued last week against any exceptions being made for children who come by boat to Australia without a parent or guardian. Senior minister Tony Burke warned that such special treatment would lead to people smugglers shipping boatloads of children without adults on the perilous journey to Australia.

"It's tough, but the alternative is unthinkable," Burke said of sending unaccompanied children to Malaysia.

The government's new policy appears to acknowledge that unaccompanied children are a vulnerable group without admitting that such asylum seekers will have a better chance of being settled in Australia rather than being sent to Malaysia.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, welcomed Australia's decision to treat cases of unaccompanied children on their individual merits.

"These are extremely important protection principles for UNHCR, which we continue to discuss with both governments," UNHCR said in a statement Sunday.

"UNHCR insists that special consideration and appropriate protection arrangements will be put in place for vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors," it said.

The change in Australia's stance on the issue buoys chances of the deal being finalized, since Australia has said UNHCR endorsement is a crucial condition of any refugee pact with Malaysia, which has not signed the Refugee Convention or Convention Against Torture.

The agency last week criticized a recent draft of the plan as lacking safeguards, but now says it accepts that the draft has been superseded.

The Malaysian government reached an in-principle agreement last month to take 800 asylum seekers off Australian hands in return for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees from among more than 90,000 languishing in Malaysia.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Australia of jeopardizing asylum seekers' rights through the deal.

Australia has long attracted people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 asylum seekers arriving by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a starting point for a dangerous sea journey to Australia.