October 30, 2014 / 5:28 AM / 3 years ago

Australia passes laws cracking down on foreign fighters

Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 25, 2014.Lucas Jackson

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia passed laws on Thursday aimed at preventing young people from becoming radicalized and going to fight in overseas conflicts such as those in Iraq and Syria, where scores of Australians have joined militant groups.

Last month, the United Nations demanded that all states make it a serious criminal offence for their citizens to travel abroad to fight with militant groups, or to recruit and fund others to do so, in a move sparked by the rise of Islamic State.

Security analysts have put the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, traveling from scores of countries around the world, in the thousands.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament at least 70 Australians were fighting in Iraq and Syria backed by about 100 Australia-based "facilitators".

The government had canceled the passports of about 70 people, Abbott said.

"It's to protect other countries who shouldn't have to host Australians intent on mayhem, and it's to protect us, Madam Speaker, because Australians do have a right to come back to this country, and the last thing we should want is people on our streets who have been radicalized and brutalized by participation in terrorist activities overseas," Abbott said.

Australia is on high alert for attacks by radicalized Muslims or by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East, having raised its threat level to high and undertaken a series of high-profile raids in major cities.

The government, which recently warned that the balance between freedom and security "may have to shift", is also introducing controversial data retention laws it says are needed to tackle security and criminal threats.

Critics say the data laws go too far in compromising privacy, will be too costly and could open journalists and whistleblowers to hefty prison sentences.

Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Robert Birsel

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