09 September 2015
by Phillip Coorey
Australia to take 12,000 refugees, boost aid and bomb Syria
Australia will take a one-off increase of 12,000 refugees from Syria, provide $44 million in extra funding to aid the United Nations, and launch airstrikes inside the war-torn country within a week, the federal government has agreed.
After being initially reluctant to take any more refugees above Australia's annual humanitarian intake of 13,750, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has agreed on the one-off intake of 12,000 refugees, who will be accepted in addition to the overall annual intake and expected increases.
"These will be permanent resettlement places over and above Australia's existing humanitarian program of 13,750 this year rising to 18,750 in 3 years' time," Mr Abbott confirmed on Wednesday.
They will be settled in Australia on a permanent basis.
Mr Abbott rejected speculation the government would focus on non-Muslim minorities, saying it would be simply on persecuted minorities unable to return.
"It certainly isn't the case. There are persecuted minorities that are Muslim, there are persecuted minorities that are non-Muslim and our focus is on the persecuted minorities who have been displaced and are very unlikely ever to be able to go back to their original homes," he said.
Australia will also pay for the support of 240,000 displaced people in Syria and Iraq through the UNHCR and other aid agencies, the Prime Minister said.
As previously flagged, Mr Abbott confirmed the Royal Australian Air Force will extend its operations above Iraq into Syrian air space.
"The Government has also decided to extend Australia's current air strikes against Daesh in Iraq to Daesh targets in Syria as well.
"Others such as the UK are likely to join this effort soon but I do want to stress, this is very much in Australia's national interest," Mr Abbott said.
Australia has had between six and eight fighter planes, a refueller and a surveillance plane operating above Iraq for almost a year.
Chief of defence Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin said extending raids across the border was relatively simple.
The decisions were signed off by a special meeting of the Cabinet and another of the Coalition party room on Wednesday morning before being announced. The Opposition has yet to be briefed on the decision to expand the air strikes.
The decision to take on more refugees has been welcomed by NSW Premier Mike Baird who called last week for an addition increase.
"I'm thrilled to hear 12,000 Syrian refugees will soon be able to find safety on our shores," he said.
Mr Abbott refused to put a timetable on when the refugees would come in, saying they would be subject to health, security, and character checks.
"It is important that we don't bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community as far as we humanly can," Mr Abbott said.
The extra refugee intake and the decisions to give $44 million in immediate aid to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees were taken following advice from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has been in Geneva having discussions with the UNHCR and other organisations such as the Red Cross.
"The first message is to make sure that extra additional financial support is provided, particularly to those in their millions who are in camps in Jordan, in Turkey, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in the north of Iraq," he said.
"These are desperate people. It's not just about accommodation; it's about food, it's about education for young people as well. Their most immediate requirement is for funding to provide support to those people."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who on Monday called for an extra 10,000 refugees and extra funding for the UNHCR, was pleased with the government decision.
But he called on Mr Abbott to rein in his "irresponsible right-wing fringe dweller" backbenchers such as Cory Bernardi, who questioned the refugee bona fides of dead Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, and Liberal National Party backbencher George Christensen, who has complained that the extra refugees would threaten Australian jobs.
"It's very important that Mr Abbott rein in some of his MPs on the far right who are saying that somehow taking more refugees will cost Australian jobs. We need to stamp out that sort of ridiculous rubbish and call it for what it is," Mr Shorten said.
"They're not internet trolls. This is elected members of Parliament feeding off the most base, the most ignorant, the most racist parts of Australian political life and Mr Abbott has to stand up and defend these refugees."
Mr Christensen, who recently addressed a Reclaim Australian rally, said Labor was hypocritical for criticising the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement as a threat to local jobs. "but there's no rules regarding the tens of thousands of refugees that Labor wants to bring in".
"They either take a job an Australian can do or they go on the dole," he said.
Labor has expressed concern at the emphasis the government will place on bringing in non-Muslim minorities such as Christians and Yazidis on the basis they are the most persecuted
"Need has to be the criteria," said shadow immigration minister Richard Marles.
He said the government should act on advice from the UNHCR as governments always have in such circumstances.
Mr Dutton defended the move.
"We're concentrating on those who are persecuted, and those that won't find a home in this part of the world for a long time to come," he said.
"People are persecuted because of their religious belief, they're persecuted because of other reasons."
But Education Minister Christopher Pyne told reporters after the party room meeting: "We have a colourblind policy when it comes to humanitarian support and that will not be changing."
Senator Bernardi said the decision was "absolutely generous" and "in accordance with the sentiment that Australians are feeling at the moment".
He says places will go to the most vulnerable - "Christians, women, children and families".