Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has bowed to public pressure and agreed to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees – but senior ministers are urging him to give priority to Christian minorities.
Mr Abbott, who said Australia’s commitment was one of the world’s largest to date, declined to give a timetable. However, senior government officials said the intention was to complete the programme within the current financial year, which ends next June.
Earlier this week, Cabinet ministers indicated that the focus would be Syrian Christians, prompting outrage from Australian Muslims and the wider community.
Mr Abbott appeared to squash that idea, saying: “Some Muslim people are very much members of persecuted minorities ... There’s Druze, there’s [Iraqi] Turkmen, there’s Yazidi. There are Muslim and non-Muslim persecuted minorities in this part of the world, and we are prioritising all of them.”
But other Cabinet colleagues pressed for Christians to head the queue. The Senate leader, Eric Abetz, said: “It should be on the basis of need, and given the Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, and especially in the Middle East, it stands to reason they would be pretty high up on the priority list.”
Malcolm Turnbull, the Communications Minister, said: “They [Christians] survived in Syria, they’ve been there for thousands of years... But in an increasingly sectarian Middle East, you have to ask whether the gaps... that they were able to live and survive in will any longer be available.”
Backbenchers are also restive, with one warning that the new refugees would “take jobs that Australians can do”.
The refugees, to be drawn from both Syria and Iraq, will be on top of the existing programme, under which Australia – 2.2 per cent of whose population is Muslim – resettled 11,570 people last year. It will also give A$44m (£96m) to the UN’s refugee agency to help Syrians living in camps.
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