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UN fears for children in Australia refugee swap
Agence France Presse - August 5, 2011
Canberra has refused to exempt children from the agreement under which it will send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in return for accepting 4,000 registered refugees from Kuala Lumpur over a four-year period.
The first boatload to be transferred arrived at the Christmas Island immigration detention centre on Thursday with 18 people under the age of 18 among the 55 onboard.
Thirteen of these children are believed to be travelling without parents or other guardians, and UNICEF said they should not be sent to Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
"UNICEF is extremely concerned about this deal. The numbers are not large and these children we absolutely say should not be deported," UNICEF Australia chief executive Norman Gillespie told AFP.
"To deport these children, who have already been traumatised, to subject them to further trauma, we think is a very extreme action."
The government has said it will assess minors on a case-by-case basis and Gillespie urged Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to exercise his discretion and look at each individual in a "very sympathetic and empathetic way".
"We think the world is watching and we think Australia really is not living up to its obligations and commitments under the convention on childrens' rights," Gillespie said.
"We would say the first and last consideration is the children, the welfare of the children, and to be traded as a number really is just a very inhumane response to what is a humanitarian issue."
The government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has stressed there will be no blanket exemptions as it tries to stem the flow of asylum seekers from places such as Afghanistan and Iran who arrive here after transiting in Asia.
"People can work on the basis that they are being returned to Malaysia," Bowen said Friday. "If you come to Australia by boat, the default position is that you'll be taken to Malaysia."
Bowen said he wanted children to be treated properly, but it was morally unacceptable to have a situation in which people had an incentive to put their sons and daughters on the dangerous boat journey to Australia.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was consulted on the Malaysia agreement, said it was concerned that arrangements to consider vulnerable people were properly implemented under the deal.
"Given the large number of children on this boat, we want to see assessments in peoples' vulnerabilities are properly carried out in Australia before any transfer is considered," regional representative Richard Towle told AFP.
"It's very, very important that a proper expert assessment is conducted as to a child's vulnerability and needs before a transfer is contemplated."