Last week the Labor government said there would be no exemption for unaccompanied minors arriving illegally in Australian waters by boat. As with adult asylum seekers, the children will be sent to Malaysia to be kept in detention centers until their refugee claim is assessed.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said otherwise it would encourage people smugglers in Asia to put children on unseaworthy boats beside often dozens of desperate people who have paid thousands of dollars for the treacherous journey.
"I don't want unaccompanied minors, I don't want children getting on boats to come to Australia thinking or knowing that there is some sort of exemption in place," Bowen told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last week.
But Bowen faces mounting pressure from human rights groups and biting criticism from Members of Parliament, including from his own party. One MP said the Labor Party is more concerned about exports of live cattle than children.
Norman Gillespie, chief executive of UNICEF in Australia, said he was "dismayed and shocked" by the announcement that children were to be sent to Malaysia. "This really looks extremely callous and lacking in all forms of compassion," he told ABC radio.
Bowen hit back at his critics, saying he was well aware of the government's responsibility as the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors and their fate would be decided on a "case-by-case basis."
He said he agreed with the United Nations' desire for special protection for vulnerable unaccompanied minors and would consider how to apply it.
"I said I didn't agree with a blanket exemption for children. Of course, what we would do is make sure that each case is considered. For example, you might deal with a 14-year-old girl differently to a male who claims to be a minor."
The chance of an asylum seeker lying about his or her age to get a better deal in Australia is at the heart of the issue for the government as it struggles with the continuing crisis of illegal immigrants, Bowen said. The vast majority have no proof of how old they are.
"That is a significant issue and it's one of the reasons why I don't think there should be a blanket exemption," Bowen said.
He also said he had faith in Malaysia's treatment of minors who are asylum seekers.
"Some asylum seekers in Malaysia do go to school and we would certainly be encouraging them," he said.
However, Australia's draft asylum deal with Malaysia is in danger of collapsing only four weeks after being announced.
Australia said human rights will be a "critical" element of the final asylum-seeker deal it strikes with Malaysia and people shouldn't rush to judgment before it's released.
The agreement sees Australia over the next four years sending boat people to Malaysia as soon as they arrive in Australian waters and are picked up by Australia's coast guard and navy.
For every person transferred to Malaysia, Australia will take five bona fide refugees, meaning an additional 4,000 processed refugees could be moving to Australia.
The agreement stipulates that none of the refugees heading to Australia will be boat people who originally were sent to Malaysia.
But Australian media claim that Kuala Lumpur wants a veto power over the 800 asylum seekers the Gillard government plans to transfer to Malaysia in exchange for accepting the 4,000 refugees.
E-mailed communications also show Malaysian officials don't want the final agreement to use the term "human rights" in its introduction, ABC said.
''What the document shows is that there is a real reluctance by Malaysia to commit to a clear inclusion of human rights standards and guarantees,'' Melbourne refugee lawyer David Manne said on ABC's "Lateline" news program.
''For example, in the document refugees are referred to as illegal immigrants. There's no reference to the word asylum seeker. There's certainly no reference to human rights," Manne said.