THE federal government has begun moving asylum seekers from Christmas Island to the Australian mainland, despite their having arrived after Labor's deadline for its Pacific solution.
The transfer has been forced by overcrowding on Christmas Island and the move threatens to undermine government attempts to deter boatloads of irregular migrants by sending them to Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
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The Herald understands at least 120 people have been moved to two detention centres in Western Australia and one in Victoria.
This is the same number of people sent to Nauru under the new processing arrangements, meaning that so far asylum seekers have had a roughly equal chance of winding up in Australia or the Pacific.
The Immigration Department confirmed a number of people who arrived by boat after August 13 - the date Labor embraced offshore processing - had been shifted to the mainland but declined to say how many.
Almost 3000 people have arrived on 47 vessels since August 13, far outstripping the upper limit of 1500 which Nauru has indicated it will accept.
A second camp on Manus Island, with an estimated capacity of 600 people, needs significant renovation and PNG has said it is up to Australia how soon it can be opened.
Authorities insist the decision to bring people to the mainland due to overcrowding on Christmas Island does not preclude their eventually being sent to Nauru.
The detention centres on Christmas Island can accommodate more than 2000 asylum seekers but after riots on the island, authorities are sensitive to overcrowding.
An immigration spokesman said transfers happened all the time but the department could not provide figures on the number sent to the mainland.
The department has been keen to promote the fact that people have been sent to Nauru and the decision of some asylum seekers to abandon their claims.
A Sri Lankan man left Nauru yesterday having decided to return home rather than pursue his refugee application. The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, hailed a decision by 18 other Sri Lankans at the weekend to leave Christmas Island rather than go to Nauru.
''These people had been misled by people smugglers to believe that a visa would be available on their arrival to Australia,'' he said.
The opposition later claimed this cast doubt on all Sri Lankan asylum seekers who had arrived since Tamil separatists were defeated in 2009 after a decades-long civil war against the central government dominated by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group. It has since emerged most were Sinhalese.
Another boatload of asylum seekers with 12 passengers was intercepted on Monday evening near Ashmore Islands.
with Dylan Welch