Sydney: A number of asylum-seeker children held in A are to be released, officials said 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 currently in community detention or in mainland detention centres and who arrived in Australia 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."
Rights groups welcomed the move but said it should also include children held in offshore facilities.
The Australian Human Rights Commission, which is conducting a national inquiry into the detention of children, added that the financial support for bridging visa holders was "inadequate to meet basic needs and children may be moved into difficult financial circumstances".
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.
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 the national inquiry 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 tougher border security policies, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds of people dying en route.
Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles questioned why the decision came almost a year after the conservative government was elected.
"It is very interesting that -- in a week where the minister is to appear before the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into children in detention -- we hear, for the first time, any concern from him about the plight of kids in detention," Marles said.
Morrison said 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 those held falling by 516 since it was elected last September.