SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will accept 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of its current humanitarian intake quota, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday, bowing to pressure from an angry opposition, and extend air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq into Syria.
Abbott had said on Sunday that Australia would allocate more spaces in its 13,750 annual quota to those fleeing violence in Syria, without boosting overall arrivals.
The one-off move to offer refuge to those fleeing the four-year-old civil war in Syria would prioritize members of persecuted minorities, Abbott said.
"Australia remains committed to the international effort to counter Daesh, which threatens stability in Iraq and the Middle East and the security of Australians at home and in our region," he told reporters in Canberra, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.
At least 850,000 people are expected to cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe this year and next, the United Nations said on Tuesday, giving estimates that already look conservative. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR called for more cohesive asylum policies to deal with the growing numbers.
The Royal Australian Air Force is already taking part in the U.S.-led coalition campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq, but its aerial role in Syria has so far been limited to refueling and intelligence gathering.
The decision to expand air strikes was in response to a formal request from Washington, Abbott said.
"This is not an attempt to build a liberal pluralist market democracy overnight in the Middle East. That's been tried and it didn't magnificently succeed," Abbott said.
"Surely all human beings are entitled to a government which doesn't commit genocide against them."
Australia also committed to directly pay for the support of 240,000 displaced people in countries neighboring Syria and Iraq, Abbott said, at a cost of A$44 million ($31.03 million).
Refugee advocates praised the decision to allow in the displaced Syrians.
"(It) is an important first step and shows to the world that Australia is willing to support those who are in great need," the Refugee Council of Australia said in a statement.
At the same time, the move to wade deeper into the conflict in Syria drew harsh rebukes from Abbott's political opponents.
"At a time when our community is desperate to show compassion to people fleeing war in Syria, Tony Abbott is dropping bombs," opposition Greens Party leader Richard Di Natale told reporters. ($1 = A$1.4)
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie