By Migration Agent Sydney | 9 Sep 2015
Australia will permanently resettle 12,000 refugees from Syria, and begin air strikes on Islamic State targets within the week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced.
Speaking a short time after Coalition MPs met in Canberra on Wednesday to discuss the government's policy, Mr Abbott described the commitment to take in 12,000 refugees as one of the world's largest to date.
He said women, children and families from persecuted minorities sheltering in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey would take priority.
"I do want to stress, women children and families - the most vulnerable of all," he said.
He denied there would be any preferential treatment given to Christians over Muslims despite reports of some backbench anti-Muslim sentiment. "It's those who can never go back that we're focused on," he said
Mr Abbott said Australia would "move quickly" to resettle refugees but they would be subject to standard security checks.
The government will also spend $44 million supplying 240,000 refugees with cash, food, water and blankets in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Declaring the need to act "with our heads, as well as with our hearts", Mr Abbott said air strikes would target Islamic State targets in eastern Syria.
Mr Abbott said the legal basis for the air strikes is "the collective self-defence of Iraq".
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said dropping bombs on Syria would be "illegal, ineffective and dangerous".
"These air strikes just won't work. You can't defeat an unconventional enemy like Islamic State by dropping bombs," he said.
In a statement before question time on Wednesday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor welcomed the Prime Minister's decision to accept 12,000 additional people displaced by the crisis.
"Importantly, these places are being offered on the basis of need and no other consideration," Mr Shorten said.
"Our compassion should pay no heed to the colour of a person's skin or the god they pray to."
Mr Shorten said Labor would support the extension of Australian air strikes into Syria, but said the opposition wanted assurance from the government that the action by Australian military was "strategically, legally and morally sound".
PM bows to pressure
The decision to accept 12,000 refugees on top of the existing 13,750 humanitarian intake is a radical turnaround from the Prime Minister's position outlined just four days ago.
On Sunday, Mr Abbott said Australia would accept more refugees from Syria but within the existing quota.
But after pressure from state Liberal leaders, the federal opposition and Greens, backed by public calls for Australia to do more to address the EU migrant crisis, Mr Abbott staged a complete change of heart on the issue.
Mr Abbott said he had not wanted to rush his response and wanted to seek advice from UN refugee agency the UNHCR and Australian bureaucrats first.
The cost of resettling the 12,000 refugees will be approximately $700 million over four years, not including processing costs.
Senior government officials said the first refugees could arrive by Christmas. It's intended that the 12,000 will arrive within the financial year.
The UNHCR released a statement welcoming Australia's commitment.
"UNHCR warmly receives Australia's announcement in committing to resettle an additional 12,000 refugees," it said in a statement.
"The Prime Minister's announcement comes at a crucial time when UNHCR is stretched to capacity in meeting the needs of the most desperate."
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird also welcomed the decision in a post on Facebook.
"I am thrilled to hear that 12,000 Syrian refugees will soon be able to find safety on our shores … I applaud this bold and generous decision," he said.
"Something is happening here in Australia. People have united behind the simple idea that our boundless plains are here to be shared, especially with those that are in desperate need."
Mr Shorten on Monday called for Australia to accept 10,000 refugees on a one-off basis as well as $100 million for the UNHCR.
Mr Abbott confirmed on Wednesday the Coalition would contribute a lesser figure of approximately $44 million.
Western Sydney backbencher Craig Laundy was one of the government's early voices in calling on the federal Coalition to step up its response.
He welcomed the government's change of heart.
"On Friday I asked the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Immigration Minister simply could we please do more," he told Fairfax Media.
"Today I say to all three, and cabinet, simply 'Thank you'," he said.
Greens MP Adam Bandt said on Facebook that the government had been "forced to respond" because of the tens of thousands of Australians who had attended pro-refugee rallies around the country this week.
But he cautioned the government on prioritising Christian Syrians over Muslims for resettlement.
"We shouldn't discriminate between people seeking refuge," he said.