West Australian MP Melissa Parke on Monday became the first to break ranks with the government by publicly voicing concerns about the yet-to-be-finalised deal that would see Australia send up to 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia.
Ms Parke said she could not support any deal that involved sending unaccompanied children to another country.
“All children deserve a childhood and Australia has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the former United Nations lawyer told ABC Radio.
“They are entitled to have their welfare and rights protected and the minister as the official guardian of unaccompanied minors has a responsibility to ensure that Australia complies with its legal obligations under that convention.”
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott later claimed Ms Parke was not alone in her concerns.
“The fact that the government is proposing to treat boatpeople with wanton cruelty is upsetting a lot of people inside the Labor Party as well as a lot of people inside the community,” Mr Abbott told reporters.
“When government backbenchers are telling me, the leader of the opposition, that they’ve got a problem – they are very, very concerned inside the caucus.”
Pressed for more details, Mr Abbott refused to elaborate.
“The last thing I would ever do is reveal the contents of a private conversation, but I know, because they’ve told me, that there is a lot unhappiness inside the caucus.”
Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said she was encouraged by signs of dissent emerging within the government.
“We hope that others will join them and push to abandon the deal,” she said.
The opposition is still calling on the government to reopen the detention centre on Nauru, which even some refugee advocates now say would be a better option than Malaysia.
But Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – which has reaffirmed its support for the Malaysia deal after appearing to waver last week – regards Nauru as a bad option.
“The previous government’s approach was to leave people on Nauru for a very long time,” Mr Bowen told ABC Radio.
“But eventually they were settled in Australia, which is the worst of both worlds in terms of not being able to break the people smugglers’ business model, but a lot of damage done to people along the way.”
Mr Bowen has ruled out imposing a blanket ban on sending unaccompanied children to Malaysia. Rather, each would be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The chair of the government’s immigration detention health advisory group said that was unacceptable.
“We need to exempt all minors, whether they are accompanied or unaccompanied, from being trafficked to Malaysia given the concerns about the situation there,” Professor Louise Newman said.
More than a dozen NGOs have issued a new joint statement condemning the deal.
Organisations such as the Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International and Oxfam say both Malaysia and Nauru are inhumane options.
“Neither indefinite detention in the Pacific nor sending asylum seekers to uncertainty in Malaysia can be presented as a just or credible response to the needs of people seeking refugee protection in Australia,” they said.