A multi-million-dollar refugee detention centre set up by Australia on an island in Papua New Guinea has housed just one asylum-seeker over the past six months.
But Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone yesterday denied accusations from the opposition Labor Party that the camp, on remote Manus island, was a waste of money.
Since July it has held just one inmate - Aladdin Sisalem, a Palestinian who fled his adopted homeland, Kuwait, because he claimed he faced persecution.
The government is spending an estimated A$716,000 (HK$4.3 million) a month maintaining the centre, which was opened in 2001 as part of the so-called 'Pacific solution' of denying asylum-seekers access to the Australian mainland.
Senator Vanstone conceded the detention camp was expensive but insisted it would not be closed.
'We would keep the option of Manus island even if there wasn't anybody there,' she said. 'If a country town in Victoria has an ambulance and the ambulance hasn't been used for 12 months you don't say 'let's get rid of it'. You've got to be prepared.'
Senator Vanstone said the centre acted as a deterrent to illegal refugees and the snakehead syndicates that tried to smuggle them into Australia.
'We shifted to offshore processing because we think that is what really kills the people-smugglers. When they can't get their customers to Australia, their future clients say 'we aren't going to give you any money because you won't get us to Australia',' she said.
But Labor MP Tanya Plibersek said the Pacific solution had been costly and cruel. 'It is absurd having one poor fellow sitting in the middle of the Pacific. He is our responsibility,' she said.