Tony Abbott will let thousands more Syrian refugees into Australia — but there’s a catch

Updated on
People attend a candlelight vigil for refugees in Sydney on Sept. 7, 2015.
People attend a candlelight vigil for refugees in Sydney on Sept. 7, 2015. 
Daniel Munoz

Editor's note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect the news.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott isn't known for his benevolence toward refugees. 

So it came as something of a surprise when Abbott announced on Wednesday that Australia will resettle 12,000 refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, on top of the existing annual refugee quota of 13,750.

Just days ago, Abbott said he wouldn’t increase Australia's overall refugee quota, suggesting any additional Syrians and Iraqis would have to come at the expense of refugees from other countries. 

Other political leaders had pushed back against that approach. Labor, the main opposition party, called for an additional 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis to be let in above the quota, while the Greens party wanted 20,000 extra places made available immediately. At least one conservative politician said Australia could handle another 50,000.

Even members of Abbott’s own conservative government — the architects of Australia's much-criticized asylum seeker policy, which The New York Times described last week as "brutal" and "unconscionable" — had called for Australia to take in more people from Syria and Iraq.

The pressure seems to have worked. In addition to raising Australia's refugee quota to allow more Syrians and Iraqis, on Wednesday Abbott committed to providing refugee agencies with $32 million in aid, and to expanding Australia's airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq into Syria.

It was clear before these concessions that many Australians didn't share Abbott's harsh views on accepting refugees.

Tens of thousands of Australians held candlelight vigils around the country on Monday to honor little Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic death sparked a global outpouring of grief and calls for European leaders to work together to deal with the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

More from GlobalPost: How social media transformed the image of a drowned Syrian child into an iconic symbol

Participants at #LightTheDark events, which became a trending topic on Twitter in Australia, held signs expressing their support for Syrians fleeing their war-torn country and urging the Australian government to accept more refugees from Syria and elsewhere. 

The debate isn’t just about numbers. Abbott's colleagues have also been arguing about the type of refugees that should be allowed into Australia.

There are calls to restrict Australia’s generosity to those refugees who would "fit in well," and the government has made clear that Australia will give priority to "persecuted minorities" — which has been interpreted by some in Australia as another way of saying non-Muslims.

"There will be a focus on ensuring we can get access to those persecuted ethnic and religious minorities … That includes Maronites, it includes Yazidis, there are Druze, there are a whole range of ethnic and religious minorities that make up the populations in both Syria and Iraq," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Telegraph. 

Other high profile members of the government have been more blatant in their desire for more Christians to be let in at the expense of Muslims, who make up the overwhelming majority of people fleeing Syria.

"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, I think it stands to reason that they would be pretty high up on the priority list for resettlement," Employment Minister Eric Abetz told Fairfax Media.

A potential Christians-first approach has been criticized by Labor and refugee advocacy groups as "dangerous."

Dangerous, but not unique. Poland and Slovakia both announced in August that they'd only admit Christian refugees.

Abbott insisted on Wednesday that the emphasis on persecuted minorities wouldn't exclude Muslims. 

"There are persecuted minorities that are Muslim, there are persecuted minorities that are non-Muslim," he said, "and our focus is on the persecuted minorities who have been displaced and are very unlikely ever to be able to go back to their original homes."