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Australia moves back to reviled 'Pacific Solution' for migrants

The most most reviled policy of Australia's former right-wing prime minister, John Howard was detaining asylum-seekers on remote Pacific islands to deter a threatened flood of them.

The "Pacific Solution" was condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Australia's Labor Party, then in opposition. One of Labor's first acts on being elected in 2007 was to scrap it and close detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Now, under pressure to act tough following a renewed flow of "boat people", the Labor government is poised to revive the policy and reopen a mothballed centre on PNG's Manus Island. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has yet to confirm the plan, but PNG's Foreign Minister, Don Polye, said it had been discussed with Australian officials and at a special cabinet meeting yesterday.

The prospect of Manus being reincarnated as a dumping-ground for Australia's unwanted asylum-seekers has dismayed refugee advocates, who recall the grim conditions there.

For impoverished PNG the Pacific Solution was a pot of gold. In return for housing detainees, they received millions of dollars in aid. This time, too, Australia is offering development assistance, Mr Polye says. Manus will not only relieve pressure on Australia's overcrowded main detention centre on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. It will mean asylum-seekers will be out of sight and out of mind and, as Ms Gillard doubtless hopes, that will remove the sting from attacks by the conservative opposition.

Introduced by Mr Howard in 2001, after the notorious incident in which he refused to allow the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel carrying shipwrecked asylum-seekers, to land, the Pacific Solution slashed the number of refugee boats travelling to Australia via Indonesia. In 2009 the traffic resumed, and last year 6,500 boat people arrived.

Pressure has mounted on Ms Gillard after rooftop protests and other unrest at detention centres. There has also been a spate of suicides and self-harm incidents, a trend likely to increase, mental health experts warn, if the isolated Manus centre is reopened.

Processing asylum-seekers in such far-flung spots is an expensive business. It cost A$1bn (£650m) to process 1,700 people on Manus and Nauru between 2001 and 2007, said Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development.

The last detainee to leave Manus, in 2004, was Aladdin Sisalem, who spent six months there alone, at a cost of A$200,000 a month. When the Pacific Solution was ditched by Ms Gillard's predecessor, Kevin Rudd, the UNHCR said many genuine refugees had "spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty".