Millions of Syrian refugees have fled areas controlled by Islamic State militants, fearing the group’s reign of terror. (Reuters: Murad Sezer, file photo)
By Anna Henderson and Chris Uhlmann
Refugees flee Islamic State’s reign of terror
The Abbott Government wants to restrict any intake of Syrian refugees to minorities which are largely Christian, as passions run high in the Coalition over the way Australia should handle the crisis in Syria.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is under increasing pressure to increase this year’s humanitarian intake of 13,750 people, but has put off a decision while Australia consults with the United Nations about the best approach.
Key points: Government wants to restrict intake to minorities, mainly Christian; Julia Bishop nominates minorities like the Yazidis; Bill Shorten warns putting emphasis on one religion is “dangerous”; Backbencher says some Coalition members want “no more Muslim men”;
Labor is pushing for an additional intake of 10,000 people, while the Greens want double that number.
Beyond the debate over numbers there is an argument over what kind of refugees should be accepted.
Government ministers, like Malcolm Turnbull, have argued for accepting more Syrian Christians, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has nominated minorities like the Yazidis.
One backbencher told the ABC the message being sent to the Prime Minister by some in the Coalition was clear: “No more Muslim men”.
Turnbull said he was very concerned about the plight of Christian communities in Syria.
“They are a minority, they survived in Syria, they’ve been there for thousands of years, literally since the time of Christ,” he said.
“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.”
Senate Leader Eric Abetz has also highlighted the case for Christians to be prioritized.
“It should be on the basis of need and given the Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, and especially in the Middle East, I think it stands to reason that they would be pretty high up on the priority list for resettlement.”
Bishop told AM the Government was looking at the best way to offer both temporary and permanent protection options for those fleeing the crisis.
“I think that Christian minorities are being persecuted in Syria and even if the conflict were over they would still be persecuted,” she said.
“So I believe there will be a focus on ensuring we can get access to those persecuted ethnic and religious minorities who will have no home to return to even when the conflict is over.
“That includes Maronites, it includes Yazidis, there are Druze, there are a whole range of ethnic and religious minorities that make up the populations in both Syria and Iraq.”
Fears focus on religion will increase persecution
Labor has joined refugee groups in warning the Government’s emphasis on helping Christian refugees is “dangerous”.
“Being a victim of war doesn’t know a particular religion,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said.
“If you’re a woman facing terrible crimes to be committed against you, if you’re a child, a little child, potentially drowning at sea, I’m not interested in their religion, I’m interested in their safety.”
Drum: This is about humanity, not religion
The fact the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy to suggest Australia should priorities Christian refugees from Syria speaks volumes, writes Sarah Malik.
Refugee Council chief executive Paul Power said it is “natural” to expect a large number of refugees will be Christian, but he said the focus on the group is likely to do damage.
“I’m sure one of the consequences is that extremists within Syria and other parts of the Middle East will use this as a weapon against Syrian Christians,” Mr Power said.
“They would use it as an argument to push the view that the west cares about Christians and does not care about Muslims and other religious minorities.”
In this morning’s party room meeting, Coalition MPs suggested the Government fast-track a planned increase in the number of refugees it accepts.
MPs, including Tasmanian Brett Whiteley, told the party room community sentiment around the Syrian crisis had “changed” and the public wanted the Abbott Government to act.
The ABC understands some MPs raised the prospect of the Government bringing forward its plan to increase the refugee intake to 18,750, which according to current policy is not due until 2018.
It is understood Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will brief the national security committee tonight about his meetings in Europe on the issue.
Cabinet will discuss the issue tomorrow morning and there is a suggestion the party room may meet again before an announcement is made.
Speaking from Europe, Mr Dutton said he would hold talks with the United Nations refugee agency and other organizations on how Australia could help.
“There’s more to be done and the Australian Government’s very keen to have discussions with the UNHCR, with our partners otherwise, to look at what more we can do,” he said.
“We’ll be focusing our attention particularly on the families who are in the refugee camps along the border of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey.”
‘Persecuted minorities’ must be the focus: Bernardi
Yesterday in the Senate, Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi said persecuted minorities must be the focus on Australia’s efforts.
“The Christians in the Middle East are among the most persecuted people on Earth,” he told the Senate.
“If we can provide safe haven to them, then I say we should do it. And that is what the Prime Minister has said.”
Senator Bernardi also questioned the motivation of thousands of those who are trying to enter Europe.
“This seems to me to be becoming an opportunistic cycle which is masking the true humanitarian need that is the responsibility of all Western nations,” he said.
“That is the challenge for us — to distinguish between those who are being opportunistic and those are truly in need.”
Richard Marles has described Senator Bernardi as an “embarrassment” to the Government and said the comments were “reprehensible” and out of kilter with community sentiment.
Government backbencher Ewen Jones said Australia had the capacity to take up to 50,000 refugees.
But the calls for ever larger intakes were rebuffed by another Coalition backbencher, Andrew Nikolic.
“We will do this is an evidence-based way,” he said.
“We’re not going to do it in a way with this rhetoric of trying to out-compassion each other.”