SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Thursday rejected charges his country was dragging its feet in resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq, having resettled just 26 in the same time it took Canada to process 26,000.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott last September pledged to accept 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of Australia’s current humanitarian intake program of 13,750 people.
Dutton said the pace of resettlements was determined on national security grounds. Border security is a hot-button political issue in Australia, which is scheduled to hold a national election later in the year.
“The Australian public demands that the government does everything possible to make sure that first and foremost our national security is protected and secondly to make sure that we’re bringing the right people into our country so that they can start a new life,” he told reporters in Washington.
At a Senate estimates hearing last week, immigration officials said just 26 Syrian refugees had arrived since the 12,000 intake was announced in September.
According to the Canadian government’s main website, 21,313 refugees have been resettled since November, while a further 4,687 have had their asylum applications approved but not yet arrived.
The Refugee Council of Australia noted that neighboring New Zealand had resettled 82 of 200 Syrian refugees it agreed to accept last year under a similar program.
“Our government is dragging its feet while the rest of the world is acting much more quickly to meet their promises,” said refugee council chief Paul Power.
“It is a shame for all concerned that the Australian resettlement program is so bogged down in bureaucratic delays, when the governments of Canada and New Zealand have proven that it is possible to move much more swiftly.”
The Australian decision to accept 12,000 people fleeing Syria and Iraq came in response to a call by the United Nations for more cohesive asylum policies to deal with the growing numbers of refugees flooding into Europe to escape the four-year-old Syrian conflict.
The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small in comparison with those arriving in Europe, but under its tough immigration policies, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
Australia’s High Court this month rejected a legal test case that challenged its right to deport 267 refugee children and their families who had been brought from Nauru, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia, for medical treatment.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Michael Perry