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Australia, New Zealand to take in Syrian refugees

Canberra government promises ‘significant’ increase in refugee settlement, without committing to numbers; Wellington to allow in 600

Syrian refugees land on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos in an inflatable dingy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey on September 3, 2015. (AFP/Angelos Tzortzinis)
Syrian refugees land on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos in an inflatable dingy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey on September 3, 2015. (AFP/Angelos Tzortzinis)

Australia’s prime minister said Monday that his country will resettle a “significant” number of refugees from Syria this year, while the opposition called for an additional 10,000 refugee places to help the world cope with a humanitarian crisis.

Tony Abbott told parliament he would have more to say about numbers on Tuesday after Immigration Minister Peter Dutton reported back from meetings with the United Nation refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration in Geneva and Paris about the refugee crisis from Syria.

“It is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year,” Abbott said.

“The women and children in camps, in particular the women and children from persecuted minorities in camps, they deserve a compassionate response from Australia and that is exactly what they will get from this government,” he said.

The opposition Labor Party called for an additional 10,000 refugee places on top of the 13,750 already planned for the current fiscal year that began in July.

Australia, with a population of 24 million, has an annual refugee intake of 13,750 that is regarded as the world’s most generous on a per capita basis.

Last year, 4,500 of those refugees were fleeing the Iraq and Syria conflicts.

Even before the worsening Syrian crisis, Abbott’s government had planned to increase that refugee intake to 16,250 in 2017-18 and then 18,750 in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, New Zealand said it will take an extra 600 refugees from Syria as the humanitarian crisis there worsens.

Prime Minister John Key said Monday that the South Pacific nation will take the refugees over the next 2½ years. The emergency intake comes on top of New Zealand’s annual target of accepting 750 refugees.

Key said public support for more refugees has likely built since last week when haunting photos of a 3-year-old Syrian boy dead on a Turkish beach circulated on social media.

The move represents an about-face for the conservative government after Key last week ruled out changing the refugee intake until next year.

But the public demanded action after images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a the shore brought the human cost of the crisis into devastating focus.

Key said “people’s hearts melt” when they see those types of images. He said the government had been considering taking more refugees before those images surfaced.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said 150 places would be offered to Syrians under the government’s existing quota, and an extra 600 people from the war-torn country would be accepted through a special emergency intake.

New Zealand currently has an annual refugee quota of 750, which has not risen since 1987.

“Like most New Zealanders, the government is very concerned at the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Syria and Europe that has visibly worsened in recent times,” Woodhouse said.

Woodhouse said New Zealand’s move was comparable to its response to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 when it took in an extra 600 refugees.

He said a review of refugee quotas would be completed by mid-2016, when numbers could be increased again.

“(But) there are practical limitations around our ability to provide enough housing, translators, health services — all factors we need to take into consideration,” he said.

Critics such as Amnesty International say the wealthy nation of 4.5 million should be doing more, calling for an immediate doubling of the existing quota to 1,500.

“The government should be asking how much, not how little, it can do to help save innocent lives,” Amnesty New Zealand director Grant Bayldon said.

“Doubling our refugee quota is the least we can do after 28 years without an increase.”

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