September 8, 2015 – 7:13AM
Chief political correspondent
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has indicated Australia is now likely to take in more refugees from Syria than the current humanitarian cap would allow while also stepping up its military commitment via bombing raids on Islamic State targets and supply lines within that war-torn country.
Among the options is a one-off increase and/or a quicker transition from the current 13,750 annual humanitarian places to the higher 18,750 cap set for the end of the decade.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during question time on Monday.
Photo: Andrew Meares
Neither the military nor the humanitarian decision has been finalised, with the National Security Committee of cabinet set to sign off on Tuesday on the US-requested mission expansion, and the scale of the refugee response dependent on feedback from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mr Abbott said that when dealing with the terror threat of Islamic State, Australia would act with “decency and force”, and that it would not hesitate in protecting Iraqis and Syrians, and in protecting its own national security.
The prospect of the Abbott government lifting its aggregate refugee intake had been ruled out in previous days, but the colossal extent of the Syrian crisis, coupled with growing pressure from within the Liberal Party, has seen Mr Abbott shift to a more activist stance.
“There’s room in my house” says a sign held by Xavier, who is just two years older than Aylan Kurdi, at the Light the Dark rally in Sydney. Photo: Supplied
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was due to meet with UNHCR officials in Geneva overnight and is expected to report back on Tuesday, clearing the way for the announcement of a potentially dramatic one-off hike in Australia’s 13,750 annual intake under its humanitarian program.
Labor has called for that hike to be a 10,000-person increase, and wants a $100 million injection of aid to go with it.
On the two-year anniversary of his election as Prime Minister, Mr Abbott struck an uncommonly bipartisan tone in response, telling the House of Representatives it had a “good spirit and a good heart” and declaring that Australia would not hesitate to meet its international responsibilities.
Moving display of solidarity: Light The Dark Sydney brought nearly 10,000 people together to call for change on Australia’s refugee policy. Photo: Daniel Munoz
This would include additional funds for the UNHCR to undertake its growing workload.
He described the four-year civil war in which as many as 7 million Syrians have been displaced internally and another 4 million have fled, as “an absolute humanitarian catastrophe”.
“We always want to do the right thing by people in trouble and we are not going to let people in trouble down now — we never have and we never will,” he said.
More than 1000 Melburnians gathered at a twilight vigil mourning asylum seekers who have died in their attempt to flee war-torn countries such as Syria. Photo: Luis Ascui
“I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.
“I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.”
Those comments, which have been widely interpreted as signalling an increase above the current cap, came within minutes of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten calling for the extra 10,000.
In biting wind and drizzling rain, Melburnians swamped Treasury Gardens shortly before 6pm. Photo: Luis Ascui
“Labor believes it isn’t good enough for the government or Mr Abbott to simply say that they will take more refugees, but from within the existing level of refugees scheduled to be taken by this country. We are proposing a significant increase because this is a significant crisis,” he said.
Government MPs said they were increasingly confident that cabinet would be bold in addressing the situation, although it was not clear on Monday if the extra places would be permanent residencies or some form of temporary protection or safe-haven visa class.
Light The Dark vigil for refugees at Treasury Gardens in Melbourne. Photo: Luis Ascui
There were also concerns that the government may look to favour some religious groups, such as Christians, above others such as Muslims.
Mr Abbott said: “The women and children in camps, in particular, the women and children from persecuted minorities in camps, they deserve a compassionate response from Australia and that is exactly what they will get from this government.”
Several influential Liberals have expressed support for a greater intake in recent days ranging from NSW Premier Mike Baird and Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy to a raft of ministers and backbenchers at the federal level.
Refugees line up as they wait to register on the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: AP
One of those, Sydney MP Craig Laundy has been urging his party to do more, arguing, his multicultural western Sydney electorate of Reid would back the plan.
Public support also appears to be high amid appalling scenes of suffering and deaths at sea among the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians attempting to reach safe, stable countries in northern Europe. Germany has provided the high-water mark of assistance, accepting as many as 800,000 refugees.
Illustration: Ron Tandberg
Three humanitarian agencies have also combined to press Canberra for immediate and ambitious action to help as many people as possible.
Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children believe the country’s overall humanitarian intake of refugees should be lifted to 30,000 “in response to the global refugee crisis”.
Oxfam Australia acting executive director Pam Anders described it as heartening that the Syrian crisis had evoked such significant responses, but warned it was only part of a bigger picture of global suffering.
“The Australian government’s compassion towards Syrian refugees must not come at the expense of refugees fleeing violence and persecution in other countries,” Ms Anders said.
“Australia can, and must, do more. No single country can solve the global refugee crisis, but as one of the world’s richest countries, Australia has a moral obligation to act, and to act now.”
The Canberra Times