Heat on Abbott to expand overall refugee intake in Syrian response

Tony Abbott told parliament that Australia ‘can and must do more’ for refugees displaced by the Syrian crisis. Lukas Coch/AAP

The Abbott government is under pressure to increase its overall humanitarian refugee intake, as Labor declared Australia should offer a one-off additional 10,000 places for refugees displaced by the Syrian and Iraq conflicts.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also called for Australia to give A$100 million in humanitarian aid to help people in Syria and the region.

Shorten said Prime Minister Tony Abbott should convene a meeting of state, community and religious representatives to work towards Australia making the offer of the extra humanitarian places.

Abbott at the weekend indicated the government would boost the number of displaced Syrians accepted, but suggested this would be within the existing humanitarian intake of 13,750.

But with mounting pressure from within his own side of politics and the government about to announce it will extend its bombing operations to Syria, the Coalition is being pushed on an overall increase in the humanitarian intake.

The government is already committed to the humanitarian intake rising to 16,250 in 2017-18 financial year and 18,750 in 2018-19. One option would be to bring the rises forward.

Abbott told parliament Australia had done much already. In the last year it had taken some 4500 refugees from Syria and Iraq, and provided $100 million to humanitarian assistance to the Middle East. Since 2011 it had contributed $155 million to humanitarian assistance in Syria, Abbott said.

“But we can and must do more. When the world is in trouble, Australia responds.

"It is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge, that is the firm intention of this government.”

The government is focusing on “women and children from persecuted minorities in camps”.

There would be more money “because we must assist the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] to do its job”, Abbott said.

Abbott has sent Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Europe for talks with the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, and allies, about what more Australia can do.

Abbott said he would have more to say after getting a report from Dutton overnight.

Abbott said he intended later this week to meet community representatives, particularly the representatives of the communities suffering in Syria and the Middle East. “I want to talk to them about what we can do to work with them to ensure that those coming to Australia from the conflict in Syria are well received and, if necessary, well integrated into the Australian community once they arrive.”

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the plight of the Christian communities and other minorities in Syria. The Christian communities had been there literally since the time of Christ but in an “increasingly sectarian Middle East, you have to ask whether the gaps, the spaces that they were able to live and survive in will any longer be available”, Turnbull told reporters.