(New York) In a letter sent to the top Australian immigration official, Human Rights Watch said that the detention of unaccompanied children seeking asylum violates Australia's commitments under a U.N. treaty on children's rights. Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, is currently in New York to attend the World Economic Forum.

In the letter sent to Philip Ruddock, Australia's Minister for Immigration and Cultural Affairs, Human Rights Watch called for the government to stop detaining unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Australia. Human Rights Watch also requested more information about the reportedly harsh conditions under which the children are kept and their access to refugee status determination procedures.

To protest their confinement -- in some cases for as long as two years -- some Afghan children and adults are threatening to commit suicide and participating in hunger strikes by sewing their mouths closed. In response, the government has placed a few of these children in foster homes.

"Placing a handful of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in foster care is a good gesture, but hundreds more are still in remote desert detention centers that lack ventilation and basic facilities," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "All of these children should be immediately released from detention and adequately cared for."

In the Woomera detention center, the site of the largest protest, the government is holding 331 children, fifty-eight of whom are not with their parents and are not being cared for by an adult. These children are particularly vulnerable and need special protection. The detention center reportedly mixes children with unrelated adults, and there are reports of adults sexually assaulting children.

The 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Australia on December 17, 1990, requires Australia to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to all children seeking refuge, with the child's best interests as a primary consideration.

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, detention should be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) policy is that children seeking asylum, especially unaccompanied children, should not be detained.

"Uniting children with family members who are already in the country should be the government's priority," said Reilly. "Appropriate foster care is another option, but the Australian government must ensure that all children seeking asylum receive education, medical care, and quick determinations of their refugee claims."