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Australia could ship migrants to desert mining camp

They have been sent to remote Pacific islands and to the Indian Ocean – now asylum-seekers intercepted in Australian waters may end up in the middle of the desert, in a near-empty former gold-mining town.

A flurry of boats arriving this year – mainly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – has led to chronic overflowing at Australia's main detention centre, on Christmas Island, as well as at mainland facilities. As a result, the government is urgently seeking alternative accommodation for asylum-seekers while their claims are processed.

More than 200 are living in hotels and motels. The latest site under consideration is a disused mining camp near Leonora, a historic gold rush town in Western Australia. More than 500 miles from Perth, Leonora was a booming place in the late 19th century. Nowadays it has a distinctly abandoned air, with its broad, empty streets and dwindling population.

The Immigration Department has confirmed that it recently examined the camp, as well as other potential sites in Western Australia, including a former agricultural college run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic lay order implicated in sexual abuse scandals around the world. Around Australia, churches and other groups have been approached to see whether they can offer suitable facilities.

The refugee issue became highly controversial in Australia when John Howard, the former conservative prime minister, turned away the Tampa, a Norwegian tanker carrying shipwrecked asylum-seekers, in 2001.

Mr Howard then adopted the "Pacific solution", which involved intercepting "boat people" at sea and paying impoverished Pacific nations – namely, Nauru and Papua New Guinea – to house them while they were processed.

After Kevin Rudd's Labor government came to power in 2007, he scrapped the Pacific solution, along with other policies, such as mandatory detention for all asylum-seekers. Mr Howard's hardline measures proved such an effective deterrent that, for many years, few would-be refugees even bothered making the journey.

That has changed over the past 18 months, partly as a result of global events such as the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Last year about 2,700 people arrived by boat, and many more by air. Already this year 60 boats have been intercepted, the same number as during the whole of 2009.

The Australian external territory of Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, was supposed to be the Rudd government's solution. After refugee numbers escalated, a mothballed detention centre, originally designed to hold a maximum of 800 people, was opened on the island, about 1,600 miles north-west of Perth. Prefabricated huts and air-conditioned tents have boosted its capacity to 2,500, but the centre is now once again bursting at the seams. Officials hoped to transfer up to 90 people, mainly women and children, to Leonora.

However, the plan was criticised by the Western Australian premier, Colin Barnett, who told ABC radio: "I think it's quite silly of them, charging around country areas of Western Australia, looking for buildings or deserted mining camps. That's not a very professional way of dealing with... an important humanitarian issue."

Gold is still mined in the Leonora area, as is nickel, mainly by "fly in, fly out" workers accommodated in temporary camps. One-third of the town's population is indigenous.