SYDNEY (AFP) - A number of children of asylum seekers held in Australian mainland immigration detention centres are to be released, officials said on Tuesday, although hundreds of others will remain locked up in offshore camps.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said "a large number" of the children and their families would be given bridging visas allowing them to live in the community, attend school and have access to health and financial support. The programme only applies to children being held in community detention or in mainland detention centres and who arrived in the country before July 19, 2013.
"We are confident that we can move a large number of them off community detention into the bridging visa programme," said Morrison, who has come under fierce criticism from rights groups for not doing enough to care for asylum seeker children.
"We will transition as many of those as we can onto this other arrangement that will not only put them on a residence basis, at least temporarily, while their cases are being assessed, but also result in a reduction of cost to the taxpayer."
Under community detention, detainees live under the supervision of charities until their status is resolved. Having a bridging visa will allow them to choose where they reside while receiving enhanced support. Children under the age of 10 and their families will be given priority.
A total of 1,547 children are in community detention, according to immigration department figures. At least a further 150 in mainland detention centres will be considered for release.
Children who arrived by boat in Australia after July 19, 2013 are excluded from the programme under Canberra's tough immigration policy, which prevents them being resettled in the country regardless of whether they are judged to be genuine refugees.
The children, along with other boatpeople, are instead held in camps in the Pacific for processing or resettlement. Some 183 children are being kept on Nauru under this policy, while 148 others are detained on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
Stopping the boats
Morrison defended the continued detention of children in offshore camps, despite concerns raised during a national enquiry in July that many of those on Christmas Island were struggling with mental health problems.
"Offshore processing is part of the suite of measures that are stopping the boats," he said. "And I don't think encouraging children to get on boats where they can die at sea is an acceptable humanitarian outcome. And so this government won't be watering down its policies on border protection."
Since December, only one boatload of asylum-seekers has managed to reach the Australian mainland. Prior to the government's introduction of its tough border security policies, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds of people dying en route.
The minister said such a release programme was only possible now as previous bridging visa arrangements for children "just simply weren't sufficient". He added that his government had sought to reduce the number of children in detention since coming to power, with the number held falling by 516 since parliamentary elections last September.