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Rights of children should be above politics

Yesterday the High Court extended an injunction to hear a legal challenge to the Malaysian people-swap deal. The full bench of the court in Canberra will now sit on August 22. The Greens maintain that whatever the court's decision later this month, the policy of expelling vulnerable people, especially children, is wrong and should be abandoned. Under the Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation not to send people to a country where their safety is compromised.

I've travelled a lot in the past few weeks and have heard from many people who say they are appalled by the government's arrangement. As people become aware of what the policy actually entails - sending unaccompanied children off to Malaysia - they become uneasy with the proposal.

Everyday Australians know the Malaysian arrangement is inhumane and wrong, and opinion polls such as those run by Essential Media show support for it is decreasing. There's been plenty of criticism from across Australia and Malaysia to the policy, from human rights experts to lawyers and ordinary voters. Indeed, the only group to endorse it, aside from the ALP, is the Australian Christian Lobby.

The Greens' position is that it's wrong to try making an example of children already on Christmas Island who seek protection by expelling them to a place where they could be put in harm's way. Australia should not be using these asylum seekers as pawns to scare others from making the treacherous journey by boat. Every person has the right to seek asylum and every child has the right to feel safe. The risk of children and other vulnerable people such as pregnant women encountering dangers in Malaysia is too great. Their claims for asylum should be assessed here on the mainland.

Australia can also take the extra 1000 refugees a year from Malaysia for the next four years. Indeed, we should be accepting even more than this. Australia can restore some of the international goodwill it lost during the years of the Pacific Solution by increasing its humanitarian intake without having to sacrifice 800 asylum seekers. (Increasing the intake was something Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised he'd do if he secured the support of independent Andrew Wilkie to form government in 2010, by the way. The Greens' policy is to increase the intake to 20,000.)

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen should use his role as the legal guardian of these vulnerable young people to ensure they are safe. He has a conflict of interest, however, because as well as being their guardian, he also decides whether or not to issue their visas or deport them.

The Greens say Minister Bowen should not abandon these children. He must ensure Australia honours its obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, protect these children and stop them from being flown to Malaysia.  Children should never be used to score political points.

First published in The National Times on August 9, 2011.

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