Canberra: Australian PM Tony Abbott said on Sunday the government would welcome a higher portion of Syrian refugees amid Europe’s humanitarian crisis, but would not increase its annual refugee intake.
Europe is facing an unprecedented influx of people seeking safe-havens, many from war-torn Syria, with the human cost of the crisis reflected in images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi whose body washed up on a Turkish beach.
Canberra takes a hardline stance against asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat, with Abbott saying Friday that tough policies were needed to stop drownings at sea.
The prime minister said he was moved by photographs of the three-year-old and was sending Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Geneva late Sunday for talks with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, amid a growing domestic push to address the crisis.
But despite calls from opposition parties Labor and Greens for an increase in the refugee intake, Abbott said the annual 2015-16 quota, at 13,750, would remain the same.
“We are disposed to take more people from that troubled region under our refugee and humanitarian programme, and we are open to providing more financial assistance to the UNHCR,” he told reporters in Canberra.
He declined to specify how many more would be accepted, but said Australia took in almost 4,500 refugees from Iraq and Syria last year and “we are prepared to take significant numbers this year given the ongoing crisis and its scale”.
The focus would be on families, women and children residing in camps “on the edges of Syria”, Abbott said, particularly from persecuted minorities. Abbott added that Australia was already gradually lifting its annual refugee intake — to 16,250 in 2017-18 and to 18,750 the following year.
By contrast, Labor agreed at its July national conference to double the current refugee intake to 27,500 by 2025, while the Greens have called on the government to accept an additional 20,000 Syrian refugees on top of the current allocation.
Other countries helping out include Britain, to take in 15,000 Syrian refugees according to a Sunday Times report, and Canada, to accept an additional 10,000 people from Syria and Iraq annually over the next three years.
Under Australia’s immigration policy, asylum-seekers that arrive by boat are sent to Pacific island camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and blocked from resettling on the island continent even if they are found to be refugees.
After Abbott came into power in September 2013, the government launched a military-led operation to turn boats back. Abbott said the current crisis needed a security response, with Australia set to reveal this week if it will extend its air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq into Syria following a US request.