Australia has said it will take an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It has also confirmed it will join the coalition carrying out airstrikes on 'Islamic State' militants in Syria.
"Australia will resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syria/Iraq conflict," Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in the capital, Canberra, on Wednesday, saying his government was acting "with our head as well as with our heart."
The 12,000 refugee places come in addition to Australia's usual refugee intake of 13,750. The announcement comes amid growing international pressure on the country, which generally pursues a hardline policy on asylum seekers, to take in more people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.
Abbott said efforts would focus on protecting persecuted minorities - women, children and families - who are currently taking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The government will pay an additional 44 million Australian dollars (27.8 million euros, $31 million) to support more than 240,000 displaced people in refugee camps in the three countries, Abbott also announced.
The additional funds will mean that Australia has contributed AU$320 million in aid to combat the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria since 2011.
Extending anti-'Islamic State' operations
The prime minister also confirmed that Canberra would launch airstrikes against positions of the jihadist group 'Islamic State' in Syria in the next few days. It will thus join a US-led campaign against the militants that also includes Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, since Monday, France, which has announced that it will begin surveillance flights over Syria to prepare attacks on 'IS' targets.
The legality of the airstrikes in Syria is not clear, but Abbott defended the move by saying that fighting 'IS' in the country was an extension of the self-defense of Iraq, where international air operations against the group are also being carried out with Australian participation.
"We cannot defeat Daesh in Iraq without defeating Daesh in Syria, too," Abbott said, referring to the Islamist extremist group by its alternate name. 'IS' controls large swathes of territory in both countries.
He added that the campaign would focus on 'IS,' and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Australia has long been worried about the number of its nationals who have traveled to fight alongside the jihadists or attempted attacks on home soil. It raised its terror threat alert to high one year ago.
tj/jil (AP, AFP)