Tony Abbott Defends Syria Refugee Crisis Response

07/09/2015 8:31 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
In this Wednesday, July 29, 2015 photo, a Syrian refugee boy plays with a tire at Zaatari refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan. On Zaatari’s anniversary this past week, the transformation from tent camp to city symbolizes the failure of rival world powers to negotiate an end Syria’s war. But some say it’s also a reminder that the shift from emergency aid to long-term solutions, such as setting up a water network to replace expensive delivery by truck, should have come much sooner. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

CANBERRA -- Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stressed Australia is “now in control of who comes to our country,” as he defended plans to not increase the nation’s overall refugee intake.

Abbott yesterday announced Australia will accept more refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, but indicated other refugees will miss out, with Australia’s annual humanitarian visa program expected to remain capped this year at 13,750.

After an outcry, including from within a growing cohort his own party to do more, he dispatched immigration minister Peter Dutton to Geneva overnight to speak with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR has been highly critical of the international response and wants 130,000 Syrian refugees resettle before the end of 2016.

Abbott -- who is today marking two years in office -- says Australia will “step up”, but has rejected call to return the figure of the annual overall refugee intake to 20,000.

“That was a figure that the former government very, very briefly put in place. I don't think we ever took that number,” he told Channel 7’s Sunrise program.

He says a managed refugee program is one of the dividends of Australia’s tough border protection policies, recently described by a New York Times editorial as “brutal”, “inhumane” and “ruthlessly effective.”

“Let's never forget that under the former government, that number was filled by the people smugglers. We have stopped the boats.”

“We are now in control of who comes to our country,” he said.

Australia’s current overall target of 13,750 was already scheduled to rise to 18,750 over three years, but figures including the NSW Premier Mike Baird and the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce want an immediate lift in the nation’s intake.

Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg added to the voices today, urging a specific, one-off response to the refugee crisis.

"There is a good case, there is a very good case here, for a specific response to what we're seeing from those tragic pictures in Europe," he told Sky News this morning.

Abbott told reporters in Canberra: “We have always been a country which is a good global citizen, we have always been a country that shoulders its responsibilities, that pulls its weight globally”.

“We take on a per capita basis more refugees than any other country on earth through the UN High Commission for Refugees. And we are going to build on that in the weeks and months ahead.”

The Prime Minister said the Middle East crisis requires a strong humanitarian response and a strong security response.

The Government is widely expected this week to approve a U.S. request to expand air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria.

“In Syria at the moment, people are caught between the mass executions of the death cult and the chemical weapons of the regime,” he said.

“So it is very important over time to do what we can to restore a kind of order in this very, very dark and difficult part of the world.”

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