By Jane Wardell
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Asylum seekers held on remote Christmas Island are suing the Australian government for failing to provide adequate health care, piling more pressure on Canberra over its controversial policy of detaining children.
Lawyers acting for the asylum seekers filed a claim in the Victorian Supreme Court on Tuesday, using a 6-year-old girl as the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison last week announced plans to release some children from detention after human rights groups said that holding minors was detrimental to their mental and physical health.
However, under tough laws designed to discourage refugees arriving by boat, only 150 of the 876 children currently in detention - and only those held in mainland detention centers - will be eligible for release.
Jacob Varghese, a lawyer with legal firm Maurice Blackburn, said the girl spearheading the class action, known only as A.S., had been in detention for a year and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She has ongoing dental infections, allergies, separation anxiety, bed wetting and is refusing food, he said.
"The government is robbing far too many kids of their childhoods," Varghese told reporters.
"Too many asylum-seekers' health are being severely compromised by being in detention. Doctors who have first-hand experience of what it is like there say services fall well short of standards the Australian community expects."
The class action alleges that the government and Morrison, as the legal guardian of the children, have breached their duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers.
It covers people who have been held on Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island at some point over the past three years, meaning there are thousands of potential claimants.
The law firm is seeking compensation and an order that the 334 people currently detained on the island, including 148 children, be placed in community detention on the mainland instead.
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott won an election last September after campaigning heavily on tough immigration policies, which have been criticized internationally but which polls show remain popular with voters. Morrison says they are needed to stop dangerous people-smuggling ventures.
About 16,000 asylum seekers came to Australia on 220 boats in the first seven months of 2013, but the government says there has been just one "illegal" boat arrival since December. Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned when rickety boats, mostly from Indonesia, have sunk en route in recent years.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)