Bowen defends lone child asylum policy

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is standing by the inclusion of unaccompanied children in Australia's refugee exchange plan with Malaysia despite fierce criticism of the plan.

A number of Labor MPs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have withdrawn their support for the proposed agreement since the Government confirmed unaccompanied children would be among the 800 asylum seekers to be sent to Malaysia.

The plan, under which Australia will accept 4,000 registered refugees from Malaysia, has drawn heavy criticism from human rights advocates including Amnesty International and the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF.

And the UNHCR has told the ABC it was not aware unaccompanied minors were to be deported and does not believe the draft agreement guarantees enough protection for children.

A group of Western Australia Labor MPs have signed a letter, saying the Government has lost its moral compass.

Mr Bowen says he understands the concerns, but insists a blanket rule against including unaccompanied children in the exchange plan would be inhumane.

"There would be nothing humane about an arrangement that encourages children, accompanied or unaccompanied, to get on boats," he said.

"It sends the message that the way to get re-settlement into Australia is to send children who would then be accepted and allow those children to then sponsor the rest of the family.

"There would be nothing humane or appropriate about that."

Mr Bowen says the Government will assess the children's vulnerability on a case-by-case basis before including them among the asylum seekers to be sent to Malaysia.

He says unaccompanied minors come from a wide range of circumstances.

"We have girls who may be 12 or 13 years old, we have males who may claim to be 18 but may be significantly older than that," he said.

"So of course you deal with these cases on a case-by-case basis.

"And of course in relation to the arrangement with Malaysia, let me emphasise, we will consider any particular vulnerabilities that anybody might present, any particular care that might need to be given to those people."

Mr Bowen says negotiations with Malaysia are ongoing, and he will work with the UNHCR to ensure proper safeguards are in place.

UN's response

But the UNHCR's Vincent Cochetel says the refugee commission will not support the deal unless changes are made.

He says there is not enough protection for asylum seekers, especially children, as there are insufficient safeguards.

The UNHCR is also concerned the proposal breaches Australia's obligations under the UN Refugee Convention - a convention Malaysia is not party to.

Malaysia has removed all references to human rights in its draft documents of the deal.

The deal has also seen a split in Labor party ranks, with 14 Western Australian MPs having signed an open letter, opposing the Federal Government's plan.

Some have described the move as disappointing and embarrassing.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says more members of Parliament should follow their lead.

"I think it's a very welcome step for these very brave members of parliament to come forward," she said.

"I think they should be congratulated for that. We need people standing up for humanity, standing up for common sense, and standing up against what is an extreme waste of tax payers' dollars."

'Waste of money'

Senator Hanson-Young says it is time for the Government to walk away.

"This is not going to work in terms of ensuring we protect human rights, it's not going to work to uphold Australia's obligations and it's going to cost Australian tax payers billions of dollars," she said.

"It's a waste of money, it's a waste of lives and terribly, terribly inhumane."

Refugee advocates say the Prime Minister should reopen the asylum processing centre in Nauru because anything would be better than the proposed swap with Malaysia.

Refugee lawyer Marion Le was a strident critic of the Howard government's Pacific Solution, but now says reopening Nauru would be a better option than the Malaysia deal.

She told Saturday AM Nauru is a less costly solution than Malaysia and at least Australia would have some control over what happens to people.

"Having been to Nauru myself three times at the height of the Pacific Solution ... I would much rather see people taken to Nauru than I would to any of the other alternative places that Julia Gillard's come up with," she said.