CANBERRA – What’s the difference between the Syrian asylum seekers waiting in refugee camps in the Middle East and those waiting for processing in Australia’s detention centre on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island?
Nothing according to the President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs, but it is a world of difference to the Abbott Government.
In the largest single intake of permanent refugees since the WWII in one single year, Australia yesterday agreed to take an extra 12,000 people from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
It also agreed to fund the welfare of 240,000 refugees in the Middle East with an extra $44 million and officially accepted a U.S. request to expand Australian airstrikes to Islamic State targets from Iraq to Syria.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the refugee placement offer as an “important and generous act by Australia,” but last night said there will be no extra assistance given to Syrians who had arrived in Australian waters by boat and are now waiting for immigration processing in regional processing centres.
“Well, we don't want to reward people smugglers,” Abbott told ABC's 7.30.
“What we want to do is help people who really, under these circumstances, are never able to go back to their ancestral homes.”
But Professor Triggs has declared that Syrians on Manus and Nauru are “refugees asking our protection and they should be treated equally.”
“The reality is that once these people are assessed, 80-90 per cent of them will pass the legal test as refugees.” Triggs told the ABC’s AM program.
“I think we simply have to accept that they will be Australians in one form or another and it will be far more sensible to accept that they're here fleeing conflict.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia is “responding to a particular crisis” in Middle East refugee camps.
“These will be people that we select, there will be people that we will screen and that we will bring to Australia,” she told RN Breakfast.
“They are not people that a people smuggling network have selected and provided boats to Australia. They are people that we will be selecting.”
The government estimates it will cost taxpayers up to $700 million a year, over four years, and discussions will be held over coming days with the states and territories that have offered refuge and other assistance.
Bishop this morning conceded resettlement could cost more, saying it is something that “will have to be worked through over time with experts.”
Asked on Melbourne radio 3AW whether the government truly knew the full cost, Bishop bristled.
“This is interesting. We had the media criticising us for not acting swiftly enough. We take a measures considered approach to the number or refugees we can permanently resettle.
“Of course we have estimates.
“We will work through the cost, because it will depend where they are housed, where they go to school, where they live, what sort of educational health services, whether they can get a job. So of course they won’t require social benefits.”
Families, women and children from persecuted ethnic and religious minorities will be given priority as they are assessed by specialist Australian teams and refugee agencies.
The Syrian refugees will be subject to "heightened" background checks, including health, security and character assessments.
Bishop said Australian officials will be on the lookout for terrorist infiltration, as IS has claimed it has done in Europe.
“There is a risk of terrorist infiltration now. We have home grown terrorists in Australia. We have people coming into this country, and with the best will in the world, there is always a risk,” she said.
Some of the first refugees are expected within weeks, most before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews has ruled out sending Australian combat troops to Syria.
Andrews told Channel Nine’s Today that Australia's plan in the fight against Islamic State will take at least two to three years, but asked if he categorically ruled out putting Australian troops on the ground, he responded, “Yes I do.”
“Our troops are there training the Iraqi forces, ultimately the Iraqi forces have to be out there defending their country and taking back Territory from Daesh.”
The Prime Minister yesterday failed to rule out the potential for Australian combat troops in the Middle East.