The Federal Government is defending a decision to house 79 asylum seekers in a four-star Queensland motel, saying they are vulnerable families with children. “We don’t think they should ever be put behind razor wire,” Small Business Minister Craig Emerson told Sky News today.

The Palms Motel in suburban Brisbane reportedly has been awarded a $1.2 million government contract for at least six months to accommodate the group. A private security guard has been employed to protect them and other guests, Channel 9 said.

“These are very vulnerable families with children and it’s something that needs to be done on a short-term basis,” Dr Emerson said. The measure did not happen all the time, but it had occurred under the previous Howard government, he said. “Let’s just have a little bit of space.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison acknowledged the practice was not new, but said the latest move was due to an upsurge in boat arrivals. “It happens when all of your detention centres are full,” he said. “That’s why people are in motels.”

The Government’s asylum-seeker policy was out of control, Mr Morrison said, adding 16 boats had arrived since Labor announced it was suspending new claims by Sri Lankan and Afghan boat arrivals.

Family First senator Steve Fielding says the move will only encourage more unauthorised boat arrivals. “First it was Hotel Christmas Island, now it’s Hotel Queensland,” he said in a statement. “There is no way we should be detaining asylum seekers in hotels because it just gives the people smugglers an extra selling point.”

The immigration department says the group is under 24-hour “monitoring and guarding”. “They’re not allowed to come and go,” spokesman Sandy Logan said. “They’ve all been through full security and health checks before being transferred from Christmas Island.”