Late last year the Rudd Government was handed a secret report warning of an emerging powder keg at the Christmas Island detention centre. This followed a riot between Tamil and Afghan refugees at the centre and highlighted the risk of further violence. Since then another 24 boat-loads of asylum seekers have sailed into Australian waters, adding 1200 to the Government’s $400 million offshore processing centre. There are now 239 people living in tents and just 140 spare beds.

Despite the pleas of officials, including Immigration Minister Chris Evans, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has adopted a stubborn approach to the asylum seeker problem. He wants to avoid “onshore” processing at all costs. Allowing new arrivals to be processed in Darwin or at Curtin in West Australia would be an admission that his policy has failed and would be pounced on by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott with a simple “soft on queue-jumpers” line.

Abbott knows that the first onshore processing would allow a return to the hard “we decide who comes here” rhetoric of his mentor John Howard. This is what Rudd fears – a return to the “Tampa” politics of the 2001 election.

Pushing boat people out to Christmas Island allows Rudd to play the tough guy but the strategy is about to undergo its biggest test yet – two large boats, carrying several hundred people, are due to sail into Australian waters. If and when that happens, the Government will be forced to upload between 300 and 500 people from Christmas Island and deliver them to Darwin by charter aircraft.

Evans hinted at the Government’s fall-back strategy in January: “I’ve always made clear we have a detention centre at Darwin with capacity for 500 that is purpose-built and been used in the past. If we need to do that for the final stages of processing (we can). They’ll be treated as offshore entry arrivals.”

But Evans has been unable to sell the strategy to Rudd and officials in the Department of Immigration are worried. “We can’t force any more sardines into the tin,” one source said. Immigration officials know that the reopening of Darwin’s 500 beds is inevitable. They would prefer to conduct the operation in an orderly and safe fashion on their terms but they fear it will become a mad scramble dictated by the arrival of new vessels. “We will have to move 600 people at the last minute and that will lead to mistakes,” the source said.

Meanwhile, tensions build on the island, within and outside the detention centre. “Tents burn, people do foolish things,” one senior official warned.