Also extends air campaign against IS to Syria
CANBERRA: Australia will take an extra 12,000 refugees in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday, confirming Canberra will also join coalition air strikes against Islamic State group in Syria.
Under growing pressure to take more refugees, Abbott said the government was acting “with our head as well as with our heart” to help the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing the conflict.
“Australia will resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syria/Iraq conflict,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra.
The emphasis will be on providing protection for women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Abbott said.
The government will also pay to support more than 240,000 displaced people in countries neighboring Syria and Iraq, bringing them food, water, healthcare, and other supplies, at an expected cost of A$44 million ($31 million).
The prime minister said both the humanitarian response and the stepping up of military measures against the Islamic State organization into Syria were in the national interest.
Australia raised its terror threat to high one year ago, and officials have long been concerned about nationals traveling to fight alongside IS or attempting attacks on home soil.
“Destroying this death cult is essential, not just to ending the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East but also to ending the threat to Australia and the wider world,” Abbott said.
The government said the legal basis for extending air operations into Syria was the collective self-defense of Iraq as the militant group did not respect national borders.
“We cannot defeat Daesh in Iraq without defeating Daesh in Syria too,” Abbott said, using the alternate name for the militant jihadists who control swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The focus of the campaign would be on IS, and not the Assad regime, he added.
“We have no legal basis at this point in time for wider strikes in Syria and we don’t intend to make wider strikes in Syria,” Abbott said.
Australia’s air assets already deployed to the Middle East include six F/A-18 Hornets, a KC-30A tanker transport and an E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft.
Australia’s decision follows France’s announcement on Monday that it would begin surveillance flights over Syria to lay the groundwork for striking IS targets.
Other nations involved in the US-led campaign in Syria include Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Britain last month carried out a drone strike in Syria and said it killed three jihadists, two of them British nationals, although it is not involved in military operations there.
Abbott, whose hardline policy on asylum-seekers includes turning back boats, detaining refugees in Pacific camps and denying them resettlement in Australia, said the success of this policy helped him to boost the intake.
“We are able to make this contribution because the government has stopped the flow of illegal boats to Australia, easing the pressure on our humanitarian program,” he said.
While Australia refuses to resettle refugees who make the dangerous journey on unauthorized boats, its annual intake of humanitarian refugees is 13,750 and will rise to 18,750 by 2019. The 12,000 new places are a one-off boost to this intake.
Abbott said Australian officials would work with the United Nations refugee body to help resettle the refugees as soon as possible, adding they would still be subject to normal security, health and character checks.