He has ruled out an increase to Australia’s overall annual intake, but he is being urged to consider a one-off increase for refugees displaced by conflict in the Middle East.
The Abbott Government has indicated religious minorities could have priority if it does increase Australia’s humanitarian-refugee intake for people fleeing Syria.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has suggested Australia should prioritise the Yazidi population.
Frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull says Syrian Christians will struggle to return home even if conflict ends.
But Greens leader Richard Di Natale has told the ABC that suggestions of prioritising certain persecuted minorities over others is dangerous and divisive.
“So what are we suggesting here? Are we suggesting that people of Islamic faith shouldn’t be let into Australia? I mean, that is a very dangerous territory. Are we going to determine our refugee intake on the basis of faith now? We won’t let in people who practise Islam? I’m really concerned when the Prime Minister starts to use race politics, politics of division, politics of sectarianism, to determine how we make the contribution that needs to be made when it comes to letting in refugees.”
The Greens have proposed taking in 20,000 Syrians as additional refugees to Australia’s current humanitarian intake, calling the current situation a humanitarian catastrophe.
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher has reportedly asked the Government to prioritise Christians fleeing regions of Syria controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
He has told The Australian newspaper the Government should increase the refugee intake “very substantially” to accommodate thousands more Christians fleeing to Turkey and Europe.
The Islamic Council of Victoria says the conversation about raising Australia’s refugee intake is long overdue.
But council secretary Kuranda Seyit, too, says selecting refugees based on religion sets a dangerous precedent.
“You could probably say that 99 per cent of the refugees that are flowing into Europe and into neighbouring countries are Muslim. Preference should be given to the most urgent cases. We should not be discriminating on a religious basis. I think that every case is serious. A person fleeing a war zone, regardless if it’s a woman, a child or a man, they all deserve the right to be given refuge, to be given asylum. There would be, I suppose, criticism towards Australia as being a Christian society, giving preferential treatment to Christian refugees, and I hope that we do not get those types of accusations.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called on Tony Abbott to offer an additional 10,000 humanitarian places for refugees escaping conflict in the Middle East.
Mr Shorten says his party is also proposing $100 million be provided to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He says that would ensure timely assistance for countries around Syria where refugees are fleeing.
“The whole world is trying to grapple with this challenging problem. I believe that Australia has a role to play in assisting the international movement to respond to the problems that the neighbours of Syria are facing and, more important, the population of Syria. We need to lift the overall number. That’s the essence of what Labor’s proposing. And we also say, ‘Let’s do this together.’ This is not politics as usual. This is not business as usual. We’ve suggested a meeting of the Opposition and the Government, state leaders, community organisations and, of course, religious organisations.”
The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has launched its first humanitarian appeal to support European operations since the Second World War.
Naomi Steer is the UNHCR’s national director in Australia.
She says more than 360,000 refugees have reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea since January and the Australian people have helped provide life-saving support.
“Australians have responded already, donating to UNHCR’s appeal, but we would really ask for much more support and generosity. And it often doesn’t take a lot to provide that kind of support. Twenty-five dollars provides an emergency kit, or a blanket, some cooking facilities, all very simple items but all things that mean a lot to people who have absolutely nothing.”