HUNDREDS of 17-year-old girls have been brought to Australia to get married under a government visa program.
Figures show more than 200 17-year-old girls have been granted Prospective Spouse visas over the past five years. Child safety campaigners branded the figures shocking and demanded an immediate inquiry.
Most are young women from the Middle East who are sometimes involved in arranged marriages. Hundreds more 18-, 19- and 20-year-old women have also received the visas after being sponsored by older men. Most of the teenagers are from the Middle East or South-East Asian countries.
One 17-year-old from Thailand was brought out by a 57-year-old man. Another 17-year-old Iraqi girl was sponsored by a 50-year-old.
More than 100 17-year-olds from Lebanon alone have been granted the visas after being sponsored by men aged from 19 to 37.
Visa conditions say girls must marry sponsors within nine months. Australian laws only allow minors to be married under strict conditions with court approval.
In another case, a Year 10 Lebanese girl from an area dominated by fanatic fundamentalist Muslim groups sought protection after she arrived in Australia on a Prospective Spouse visa for an arranged marriage with a man decades her senior, only to find he was a violent drunk who kept his previous wife and children next door.
The girl was granted a protection visa after she called her own family who threatened to kill her.
"I will kill you at the airport and I will bury you in the grave," the girl's family said in a letter.
The Australian Childhood Foundation's Joe Tucci described the figures as shocking and called for an urgent inquiry. "A thorough audit needs to be done to ensure these children are safe," he said. Child safety researcher Dr Chris Goddard said the figures were very disturbing and called for an inquiry.
An Immigration Department spokesman defended the program. "Applicants ... must meet a range of criteria ... including being able to demonstrate they are in a genuine and ongoing partner relationship with their sponsoring partner," he said.