The Australian government's plan to process asylum-seekers in remote Pacific island camps was on a knife-edge yesterday after a key lawmaker vowed to vote against the controversial legislation.
The Migration Amendment Bill has alarmed the UN refugee agency and critics say it would effectively close Australia's borders to boatpeople.
The legislation last week easily cleared parliament's lower chamber where Prime Minister John Howard's coalition has a strong lead.
But Howard controls the Senate by a majority of just one and every vote is crucial.
Family First Senator Steve Fielding, one of a handful of lawmakers who could hold a casting vote, declared yesterday that he would oppose the legislation.
"Imagine if every other country did what Australia is proposing. It would be chaos," he told Nine Network television. "There would be absolute chaos if everybody decided to boot people off to a foreign land."
The bill seeks to tighten immigration regulations so that asylum-seekers who arrive in mainland Australia by boat would be sent to detention centers in the island state of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while their claims are processed.
Even those found to be genuine refugees could be refused asylum in Australia and sent instead to other countries.
Currently only asylum-seekers who arrive on outlying islands or are intercepted at sea are processed offshore.
Opponents of the bill fear it will see asylum-seekers, including women and children, kept behind razor wire in remote camps with limited access to legal advice.