Leaks show Australia planning crackdown on Syrian refugees

Leaked policy document reveals that Australia may subject Syrian refugees to more scrutiny than their European counterparts

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Activists hold placards and chant slogans as they protest outside the offices of the Australian Immigration Department in Sydney, Australia on February 4, 2016.

According to a leaked policy document, Australia is considering subjecting thousands of Syrian refugees to tougher character and security checks than their European counterparts to avoid the infiltration of DAESH terrorists.

The draft document has distinguished refugees from Syria as potentially holding beliefs and associations that may motive them to engage in violent activities and outlined measures to control them even after they gain Australian citizenship.

Australia is part of the US-led coalition against DAESH terrorist group in Iraq and Syria and is on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown militants.

The leaked document prepared for the Australian Cabinet's seven-member National Security Committee was first reported by Australian media, after which Reuters obtained a copy.

The seven-page document includes recommendations to be put forward by Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton this year.

"To mitigate risks and build public confidence, I [the minister for immigration and border protection] will be bringing forward a package of reforms to simplify Australia's visa framework and create stronger controls over access to permanent residency and citizenship," the document said.

"This new framework will introduce additional decision points along the immigration continuum including ... enhanced access, use and protection of sensitive information to strengthen intelligence-led, risk based decision making ... from pre-visa stage to post-citizenship conferral," it said.

A spokeswoman for Dutton rejected the document’s significance but declined to comment on whether the minister supported its contents.

"Government departments produce draft documents for consideration all the time. This is a draft document which has not been seen by the Minister or his staff - nothing more," she said.

Children wait in a tent as refugees wait for a train to continue their journey towards western Europe at the Vinojug Temporary Transit Centre outside the village of Gevgelija, Macedonia, on February 1, 2016. (Reuters)

In 2015, Australia agreed to accept 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria as hundreds of thousands flooded into Europe.

"The Immigration Department proposals are self-defeating as they risk creating greater marginalisation and disaffection among new arrivals," Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, said in a statement.

The documents also specified the Lebanese Sunni Muslim population in Australia as an example of "potential community safety and national security risks associated with unsuccessful immigration."

Only about half a million people out of Australia's popultion of 23.5 million are Muslims. At least half live in Sydney's western suburbs, which were transformed in the mid-1970s from predominantly white working-class areas into majority-Muslim neighbourhoods by a surge of immigration from Lebanon.

The president of Lebanese Muslim Association, one of the country's most influential Muslim organisations, Samier Dandan said that the remarks in the document risked backfiring.

"It's probably going to feed the frenzy and provide a supply line for the recruiters," Dandan said.

In recent days Australia’s tough policy on asylum seekers, which includes mandatory detention for people arriving by sea, has become a hot-button political issue. The policy has been criticised internationally and is likely to figure highly in national elections which will be held later in 2016.

On Wednesday, a High Court of Australia paved the way for the deportation of more than 250 asylum seekers to an offshore immigration camp on Nauru, which sparked protests and drew sharp criticism from the United Nations and church leaders.

TRTWorld and agencies