Australia said Monday that it has softened its policy on expelling unaccompanied children who sneak into the country to seek asylum, following criticism from U.N. agencies and activists.
All children will be considered on a case-by-case basis before being sent to Malaysia under a planned refugee-swap deal, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. The statement reverses a government announcement last week that no exceptions would be made for children who sneak into Australia without a parent or guardian.
"We'll have appropriate measures in place on an individual basis to deal with what are a relatively small number of cases of unaccompanied minors," Bowen said.
Australia has long attracted people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 asylum seekers arriving by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a starting point for a dangerous sea journey to Australia.
In a bid to deter future asylum seekers from entering Australia illegally by boat, the government reached an in-principle deal with Malaysia last month.
Under the deal _ which awaits ratification by the Malaysian Cabinet _ Malaysia would take 800 asylum seekers off Australian hands in return for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees from among more than 90,000 languishing in Malaysia.
The government had initially said the deal would not accord special treatment to unaccompanied children because it would lead to people smugglers shipping boatloads of kids without adults on the perilous journey to Australia.
However, the new stand appears to acknowledge that unaccompanied children are a vulnerable group without admitting that such asylum seekers will have a better chance of being settled in Australia rather than being sent to Malaysia.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, welcomed Australia's decision to treat cases of unaccompanied children on their individual merits.
"These are extremely important protection principles for UNHCR, which we continue to discuss with both governments," UNHCR said in a statement Sunday.
"UNHCR insists that special consideration and appropriate protection arrangements will be put in place for vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors," it said.
The change in Australia's stance buoys chances of the deal being finalized, since Australia has said UNHCR endorsement is a crucial condition of any refugee pact with Malaysia.