The federal government’s decision to take 12,000 refugees from the Syrian-Iraq conflict will cost the budget A$700 million over the forward estimates and see the first people arrive in Australia before Christmas.
The intake, which is over and above the existing humanitarian annual program of 13,750, will be focused on “women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey”.
Announcing decisions on the intake, $44 million humanitarian aid for other refugees in the region, and the extension of Australian airstrikes to Syria, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia was taking in “the most vulnerable of all”, but he stressed that Muslim and other minorities would be included as well as persecuted Christians.
Although Abbott would not put a timeline on how quickly all the people would be dealt with, officials said the aim was to get it done this financial year.
The refugees, all of whom will get permanent residency immediately, will be subject to health and security tests, but not English language requirements.
“It is important that we don’t bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community, as far as we humanly can,” Abbott said.
The humanitarian aid - funds for which will come out of the existing budget - will supply food, blankets and other emergency supplies for 240,000 displaced people in countries neighbouring Syria and Iraq. It will go through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other agencies.
Interviewing refugees to come to Australia will start at once after further consultations with the UNHCR. The Immigration Department has staff in the region and they will be supplemented from elsewhere.
The airstrikes on Syria will start within a week and use the existing half–dozen aircraft which have been operating over Iraq.
Abbott said that Islamic State in Iraq could not be defeated “without defeating Daesh in Syria too. I emphasise that our aircraft will be targeting Daesh, not the Assad regime, evil though it is.”
Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said the extension of the RAAF flights over eastern Syria “is very much a practical and logical extension of the current operations in that area”.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, said that “for all intents and purposes, they just take a ten-degree left turn when they go on task and end up over Syria, so there’s no major change to be able to do these operations over eastern Syria”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten welcomed the additional refugee intake. Labor had proposed a 10,000 figure earlier this week.
Shorten also backed the extension of Australian bombing operations. He said that “Labor will support this proportional action within international law on the basis of assisting with Iraq’s self-defence”.
But Shorten stressed the ADF operations “have to be constrained by the collective self-defence of Iraq” – our alliance was not a sufficient reason to act.
“At the core of this action, this extension, is that we are acting at the request of the Iraq government and the self-defence of Iraq. Further, the use of force must be limited to what is necessary to halt these cross-border attacks and defend Australian personnel.”
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, however, argued that the extension was illegal.
The refugee intake was welcomed by the UNHCR and Save The Children Australia, although latter questioned the requirement that people come from minorities, saying a refugee had generally been persecuted and it was best in these circumstances that we let the experts decide.