In the face of widespread outrage, Julia Gillard's Labour government is preparing to deport up to 18 children, 13 of them unaccompanied, to Malaysia – a move denounced as "absolutely indefensible" by a senior conservative politician, departing from his party's tough line on asylum-seekers.
The children were among 55 people who landed on Christmas Island, the Australian Indian Ocean territory that houses the country's main immigration detention centre, on Thursday. The group – the first boatload to arrive since Australia agreed a controversial refugee "swap" with Malaysia – will be deported next week, after medical and security checks.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said no decision had yet been made as to whether any children would be allowed to stay and have their refugee claims processed in Australia. The government has said previously that vulnerable asylum-seekers, such as pregnant women, the elderly and unsupervised children, would be assessed on a case by case basis.
Malaysia, which has refused to sign the UN refugee convention, has a record of mistreating asylum-seekers and refugees. Human rights and child welfare organisations are horrified by the prospect of children being sent there for processing, particularly those travelling without parents or guardians.
Mr Bowen defended the government's stance, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "If you have blanket exemptions, people-smugglers would exploit that loophole and put children on boats, and we'd be dealing with the dangerous situation of boatloads of children."
But state premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, from the opposition conservative Liberal Party, condemned the plan. "It is absolutely indefensible for Australia, a prosperous country, to send children by themselves to another country," he said. "We are failing in humanity in doing that."
While Mr Barnett appeared genuinely appalled, other senior Liberals seized on the chance to play politics. Julie Bishop, acting opposition leader, attacked Labour "truly awful policy", adding if the Liberals were in power they would send asylum-seekers to the remote Pacific island of Nauru instead. Shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said by sending unaccompanied children to Malaysia the government was compounding the "evil" already committed by parents.
The chief executive of Unicef Australia, Norman Gillespie, yesterday urged Mr Bowen to assess the unsupervised children sympathetically. "To deport these children who have already been traumatised, to subject them to further trauma, we think is a very extreme action," he told Agence France Presse. "We think the world is watching, and we think Australia really is not living up to its obligations."
The government's aim is to deter asylum-seekers from making the perilous journey. Last December, 30 people died when their flimsy wooden boat hit rocks off Christmas Island in a storm.