Fresh criticism was poured on Australia's detention of asylum seekers yesterday when the United Nations' agency for children claimed that young refugees were being treated worse than criminals. The executive director of Unicef in Australia, Gaye Phillips, said children should be immediately released from all immigrant detention centres and allowed to live in the community under a parole system while their asylum claims were assessed. About 400 children are being held in six detention centres in Australia, as well as in camps set up on Nauru and Papua New Guinea as part of the government's 'Pacific solution' to the problem of boat people arriving on Australia's shores. Presenting a submission to an inquiry being conducted by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Ms Phillips said the government's mandatory detention of mostly Afghan and Middle Eastern refugee children failed to meet its obligations under the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child. 'We have a system where people charged and convicted of a criminal offence are from time to time released into our community. Can't we do the same for children who come to our shores, having committed no crime?' she said. Can't we integrate them into our communities while we assess their validity as refugees?' The commission's three-member panel has been travelling around the country hearing submissions from lawyers, refugee groups and medical staff, many of whom have branded the detention of children a national disgrace. Last week a former nurse at the Woomera refugee camp in South Australia told the commission that staff at the camp ignored a doctor's request that a 12-year-old girl be referred to a child psychiatrist. A group advocating the rights of disabled people claimed that a refugee boy with cerebral palsy had been denied a specially modified spoon with which to eat and had to be fed by his sister. The group said minors suffering from Aids, spina bifida and cerebral palsy were not receiving adequate care. The commission also heard accusations that Philip Ruddock had a conflict of interest between his job as immigration minister and his role as the official guardian of children in detention. David Bitel, secretary-general of the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists, said: 'You can't be both the guardian and the jailer at the same time.' He told the inquiry Mr Ruddock was failing in his responsibility to protect refugee children in areas such as health, education and opportunities for recreation. Mr Bitel said that either responsibility for the children's welfare should be passed to another minister or there should be an independent commissioner for children. In its defence, the Immigration Department is due to present a submission to the inquiry next month.