Australia Weighs Up Refugee Response As Calls Mount To Do More

08/09/2015 10:14 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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A volunteer helps a Syrian boy as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. The island of some 100,000 residents has been transformed by the sudden new population of some 20,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

CANBERRA – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the government is weighing up whether Australia has the necessary services to handle a large influx of refugees, as calls mount to allow a special one-off intake of Syrians fleeing conflict.

Although a final decision has not yet been made, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has indicated the Government will increase this year’s intake of Syrian refugees, without increasing the overall 13,750 humanitarian places.

But, Queensland Liberal MP Ewen Jones is among those who have called on the government to be more generous. Despite potentially costing billions of dollars, he has suggested 30,000 to 50,000 extra people.

“I want us to be a very strong advocate here, and I want us to be part of the solution,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“I am a 100 percent on border protection, but this is completely different.”

Aid groups, Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children, want the government to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees.

The opposition yesterday called for 10,000 extra places and last night on the ABC’s Q&A program, the NSW Premier Mike Baird was open to accepting at least that figure.

The Foreign Minister is considering increasing foreign aid to Syria from the $165 million that Australia has already provided, but she said any decision on accepting refugees will be made once the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton returns from a fact finding mission in Europe.

“Anybody can come up with any figure they wish," Bishop told reporters in Canberra.

“But the fact is we need to resettle people permanently, in the case of persecuted minorities, and that means ensuring that there is the accommodation, the services whether it be in health or education or otherwise available for them.”

“Australia does permanent resettlement exceedingly well under our humanitarian and resettlement programs. “

“We have one of the highest per capita (refugee) intakes in the world, but we have to ensure the services are available for them and these are some of the issues we are working through now.”

Bishop said the Government will announce its response within days, but has flagged a priority for persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Christians.

“We are focusing on particularly families, women and children, who have been in the camps along the Syrian border in Lebanon, Jordan and now in Turkey.

“Also the persecuted minorities because there are a number of ethnic and religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq who claim persecution and even if the conflict were over they don't believe they have a home to return to.”

“So we will be looking at those particular groups.”

Government Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, has backed a focus on Christians on the basis “of need.”

“Given the Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, and especially in the Middle East, I think it stands to reason that they would be pretty high up on the priority list for resettlement,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Overnight, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton held discussions in Paris with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres and is due hold more talks in Geneva.

He will then brief the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Jones said he will wait to see what the Minister comes back with, although he is concerned that Europe is “being overrun.”

“We have to make sure we are in this space and we are showing that we are a compassionate people,” he said.

He said he knows the cost will be high, likely in the billions of dollars, but he has declared it would be worth the investment.

“If you don’t do anything in this space, if you don’t do anything now, what you are going to find is for 25, 50, 75 years, there is going to be no education, there is going to be no health.”

“If you think the 10 or 20 or 30 billion dollars that we are going to spend now is a lot of money, imagine what we are going to do with that horde of people who are going to be radicalised and be treated for ignorance and all that sort of stuff. All the way through!”

“We have to understand what is at stake here.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has renewed his call for the government to do more and is now referring to its call for an extra 10,000 places as “a start.”

“We have spoken to re-settlement experts and immigration experts. 10,000 was something our systems could cope with without overstretching them,” Shorten told the ABC’s AM program.

“I think it is right Australia makes a decision we play our role to help an international response to help with the neighbouring countries around Syria.”

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