In a grim echo of the hardline refugee policies of the right-wing former prime minister John Howard, Australia's Labor government yesterday pledged to send unaccompanied children to Malaysia under an already controversial asylum-seeker deal.
The deal, which involves swapping 800 people who arrived in boats for 4,000 refugees waiting in Malaysia to be resettled, is aimed at deterring asylum-seekers from making the often perilous journey to Australia. But it has been widely condemned, including by a former Australian human rights commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, who said it was worse than Mr Howard's reviled "Pacific solution".
The announcement by the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, that children will be included in the swap was greeted with disbelief yesterday. The chief executive of Unicef Australia, Norman Gillespie, said he was "dismayed and shocked".
"This really looks extremely callous and lacking in all forms of compassion," he told ABC radio.
Mr Bowen said Australia wanted to deliver a strong message to people-smugglers who were prepared to traffic in children. "I don't want unaccompanied minors," he declared. "I don't want children to come to Australia thinking or knowing that there is some sort of exemption in place."
Referring to a shipwreck that killed at least 30 asylum-seekers off Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, he added: "I never want to go through, and I never want our nation to go through, what we went through in December ... burying children as a result of a boat accident. And it is inevitable that that will occur again unless we break the people smugglers' business model."
Once known as a country that welcomed immigrants, Australia – one of the world's wealthiest nations – has acquired a hard-hearted reputation over the past decade. With the number of asylum boats on the rise recently, and immigration detention centres overflowing, Julia Gillard's government is determined to prove itself tough on a politically toxic issue.
So although Labor in opposition condemned the Pacific solution, which saw asylum-seekers shipped to remote Pacific islands for processing, it now plans to send potentially vulnerable and traumatised people to a country that has not signed the UN refugee convention.
Malaysia has a record of mistreating refugees, and Amnesty International warned yesterday that children without families would be targeted by gangs and unscrupulous officials.
Amnesty Australia's refugee co-ordinator, Graham Thom, said: "On top of the well documented human rights abuses faced by all asylum-seekers in Malaysia, unaccompanied women and girls face extraordinary levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment."
Unicef's Mr Gillespie said that sending them to Malaysia might place Australia in breach of international treaties protecting children, as well as its moral obligations.
Pamela Curr, a refugee advocate, said yesterday that the latest boat arrivals reportedly included unaccompanied Vietnamese teenage girls.
"You don't need an imagination to fear what would happen to them in an overcrowded Malaysian detention centre," she said.