SEVERAL hundred boat people are expected to arrive within days aboard two illegal vessels, triggering a mass transfer of refugees from Christmas Island to the mainland. The likely influx will trigger a huge taxpayer-financed operation and be seized upon by the Opposition as Kevin Rudd’s “Tampa”.

Darwin’s immigration detention centre is on alert for the arrival of the asylum seekers who will be moved near the city after being processed at the overcrowded Christmas Island. “If one of the big boats arrives, then Christmas Island will be blown out of the water,” a source said.

According to intelligence reports the illegal vessels, carrying several hundred people each, are expected to make for the Ashmore Reef area off northwest Australia rather than directly to Christmas Island, south of Java. The Customs vessel Oceanic Viking and charter aircraft are on stand-by to transfer more than 300 people to Darwin within 72 hours after either of the vessels is intercepted. If both make it to Australia then up to 600 people will be moved to the mainland.

The transfer of asylum seekers to the mainland will be politically explosive, reinforcing concerns the Prime Minister broke his election promise to turn back the boats. Private Coalition polling shows up to 85 per cent of voters in marginal seats believe Mr Rudd has not delivered on a pledge to maintain a tough refugee policy. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has repeatedly said Labor’s softer border protection scheme is proving a magnet for people smugglers.

The numbers of boat people arriving in Australian waters has accelerated in recent months, with the Government saying it was a global trend. This year, almost 1200 boat people have arrived on 24 vessels – nearly half the number of asylum seekers that arrived last year. For the first time since the latest boat people crisis began, the Darwin centre on old Defence Department land at Berrimah will become a holding centre for refugees waiting to obtain protection visas.

The Federal Government has been keen to avoid having to process asylum seekers on the mainland. High-level sources said the delicate balance of 140 spare beds on Christmas Island had been the result of good luck rather than good management, but that luck was about to run out. “We are ready to use Darwin when a big boat arrives,” a source said.

Boat people have to be processed “offshore” on Christmas Island for legal reasons, so new arrivals cannot be taken directly to Darwin.