PERTH (Reuters) - Australia will accept more refugees from camps bordering Syria and Iraq and “is open” to providing more financial assistance, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Sunday, while adding that a “strong security response” was needed for the region.
The Australian government is due to make a decision within the week on whether to join air strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria, having been part of the operation in Iraq since last year.
“It is important that there be a humanitarian response, but it’s important that there be a strong security response as well,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will travel to Geneva to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ask what further assistance Australia could provide, Abbott said.
“We are disposed to take more people from this troubled region,” Abbott said. “We are open to providing more financial assistance to the UNHCR.”
The government’s announcement comes as a refugee crisis in Europe intensifies, with many senior Australian politicians calling for an immediate intake of 20,000 Syrian refugees.
While showing willingness to take more refugees from Syria and Iraq, Abbott refused to say whether the country’s overall humanitarian intake, currently set at some 14,000 people, would increase, or the door would be shut on others from elsewhere in the world.
He argued that on a per capita basis, Australia continues to accept more refugees through the UNHCR that any other nation.
Australia’s tough stance on asylum seekers, which includes a policy of turning back boats and offshore processing of refugee claims, had stopped the people smuggling trade to Australia and opened up more places for those in genuine need, Abbott said.
Australia’s immigration policy was the subject of harsh criticism in a New York Times editorial published on Thursday.
The newspaper described Australia’s strategy of turning away boats as “inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.”
In the year ending June 30, about a third of the 13,750 people allowed to settle in Australia hailed from Syria and Iraq. The government has plans to gradually increase the annual total intake to 18,750 places by 2018-19.
(This story corrects year in final paragraph)
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore