SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is considering subjecting thousands of refugees from Syria to tougher character and security checks than their European counterparts to minimize the risk of “extremist infiltration”, a leaked policy document says.
The draft document singles out refugees from Syria as potentially holding beliefs or associations that may lead them to engage in violent activities, and outlines measures to monitor them even after they gain Australian citizenship.
Australia is part of the United States-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria and is on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown radicals. Its tough asylum seeker policy, which includes mandatory detention for people arriving by boat, is a hot-button political issue.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation first reported on the leaked document prepared for the seven-member National Security Committee of cabinet. Reuters has obtained a copy.
The seven-page document lays out recommendations to be put forward by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton this year.
“To mitigate risks and build public confidence, I (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) will be bringing forward a package of reforms to simplify Australia’s visa framework and create stronger controls over access to permanent residency and citizenship,” it says.
“This new framework will introduce additional decision points along the immigration continuum including ... enhanced access, use and protection of sensitive information to strengthen intelligence-led, risk based decision making ... from pre-visa stage to post-citizenship conferral.”
A spokeswoman for Dutton dismissed the document’s significance but declined to comment on whether the minister supported its contents.
“Government departments produce draft documents for consideration all the time. This is a draft document which has not been seen by the Minister or his staff - nothing more,” she said.
Australia last year agreed to accept 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, as hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers flooded into Europe amidst the worsening conflict.
“The Immigration Department proposals are self-defeating as they risk creating greater marginalisation and disaffection among new arrivals,” Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, said in a statement.
The document also singles out Australia’s Lebanese Sunni Muslim population as an example of “potential community safety and national security risks associated with unsuccessful immigration.”
Only about half a million people out of Australia’s 23.5 million are Muslims. At least half live in Sydney’s western suburbs, which were transformed in the mid-1970s from white working-class enclaves into majority-Muslim outposts by a surge of immigration from Lebanon.
Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, one of the country’s most influential Muslim organizations, told Reuters that the approach outlined in the document risked backfiring.
“It’s probably going to feed the frenzy and provide a supply line for the recruiters,” he said.
Australia’s tough asylum seeker policy of mandatory detention has been criticized internationally, but is likely to figure highly in national elections due to be held later this year.
A High Court ruling on Wednesday paved the way for the deportation of over 250 asylum seekers to an offshore immigration camp in Nauru sparked protests and drew sharp criticism from The United Nations and church leaders.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Michael Perry