JULIE BISHOP Good morning Neil.
NEIL MITCHELL This is going to cost much more than $175 million a year isn’t it?
JULIE BISHOP In terms of the refugees?
NEIL MITCHELL Yes.
JULIE BISHOP Yes, we believe that taking 12,000 refugees and permanently settling them in Australia could cost up to $700 million over four years.
NEIL MITCHELL But that’s $175 million a year, isn’t it going to cost more than that?
JULIE BISHOP We are working with State and Territory Governments and community organisations, NGOs and Church groups who will partner with us to provide the kind of services that permanent resettled refugees require. It is a very big exercise. I believe it is the largest single intake of permanent resettled refugees since the Second World War in any one year, so it is a big undertaking but the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria is unprecedented. It is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world at present.
NEIL MITCHELL I’m not arguing about whether we should do it, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of the figures. That’s $14,500 each a year under your budget. The Parliamentary Budget office estimated it at $35,000 a year or so ago, $35,000 a year to keep a person in the community, a refugee in the community. Does that mean you are looking for double the figure, the cost, and the other half has to come from the private sector?
JULIE BISHOP Well Neil, these are all issues that we will work through over time with the experts, with the settlement services.
NEIL MITCHELL Why don’t we know yet?
JULIE BISHOP This is interesting, the media are criticising us for not acting swiftly enough. We take a measured, considered approach to the number of refugees that we can permanently resettle. Of course we have estimates, we have provided those costs to our experts and we have settlement services but we are also working with the States and Territories and community organisations.
This is a one-off and so we will work through the cost because it will depend where they are housed, where they go to school, where they live, what kind of education or health services they require, whether they will be able to get a job and, if so of course, they won’t require social benefits, so the figures have been worked through but of course things can change and we are prepared to be flexible.
The whole point is Australia has reacted strongly. We’ve taken 12,000 permanent refugees. Other countries are offering safe haven which means it’s a temporary arrangement, ours is a permanent arrangement.
NEIL MITCHELL Okay, I guess that is, what I’m getting at, we don’t really know the overall cost yet. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it but it could be as much as double what we’ve allowed here.
JULIE BISHOP Well I don’t understand that to be the case.
NEIL MITCHELL Well the Parliamentary Budget Office figures say $35,000.
JULIE BISHOP But you have to look at what they’ve taken into account and what they base it on. We are talking about partnering with other States and Territories, we are talking about partnering with NGOs, church groups. The public have already said in many instances that they would be prepared to assist so there are a lot of factors to take into account but we have put out the figure of $700 million and that’s the assessment we have at this point.
NEIL MITCHELL What about the employment situation, as you say, we were looking up some figures this morning. I think the employment rate amongst Iraqi refugees has been about 12 per cent, Afghani about nine per cent, so looking at a 90 per cent unemployment rate. Do we have to look at those sort of figures for these people?
JULIE BISHOP The difficulty is that in the past most of the permanent resettlement has been in our cities and job opportunities can be hard to come by. What we are talking about now is resettling them across Australia and there are areas, in fact even in the Party Room yesterday a number of local members said that there was a need for workers in their electorate where Australian workers were not taking up the jobs, or not available for the jobs. So it depends where they are settled across the country and that’s why we will be working with States and Territories.
NEIL MITCHELL What do you want from Victoria?
JULIE BISHOP A discussion with Victoria as to what they can offer. New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia have already been quite forthcoming but we will have discussions with all of the States. If they have accommodation, if they have opportunities for these refugees of course we’ll be delighted to discuss it with them.
NEIL MITCHELL There are people ringing me offering to take refugees into their homes. Do you want them to do that?
JULIE BISHOP Well obviously we need to ensure that this would be safe, it would be secure. These people would be subject to quite rigorous security, health and identification checks, character references and the like, so there will be quite a process that we can go through to ensure that we will have people that will fit into the Australian community and be able to make a contribution here.
NEIL MITCHELL There will be a long queue I would think, wanting to come here. How are you going to choose people? The PM has said minorities would be given preference. Does that mean Christian minorities?
JULIE BISHOP No it means ethnic and religious minorities who are the most in need, the most vulnerable. They have been persecuted by both the Assad regime, by the terrorist organisations in the most brutal ways. Indeed Da’esh has been the most egregious in its persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. There are Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, there are Christians, there are Yazidis, Druse, any number of minorities. And the point is this – they do not have a home to which they can return. There are many others in the camps and on the border who want to return to Syria or Iraq when it is safe to do so. But these persecuted minorities literally have nowhere to return to, so that is why we are bringing them to Australia and resettling them here permanently. Other countries like Britain and France have offered temporary protection and safe haven so that they can return home when it is safe to do so.
NEIL MITCHELL In the end the decision will have to be made. Who will decide and what – the choice a 35 year old single Muslim man or a 19-year-old Yazidi woman – what do you decide and who decides?
JULIE BISHOP Well obviously each case will be considered on its individual circumstances. We have a team of officials who will be going over there and working with the UNHCR, the International Organisation of Migration, people who are experienced in doing this but our officials will go through the character checks, the health checks, the security checks, interview them and make a decision. Our preference is for families, women and children from persecuted minorities so that is what we will be looking for.
NEIL MITCHELL So no preference to Christian groups?
JULIE BISHOP Well Christian groups do make up a substantial part of the persecuted minorities so of course there will be Christians among the group.
NEIL MITCHELL Of course but no preference being given to them ahead of Muslims?
JULIE BISHOP The preference is for persecuted minorities, those most in need and you look at them on a case-by-case basis so it would be irresponsible for me to say well we are going to take a, b, c if I’m not looking at the individual circumstances of these cases and that’s what our officials will be doing.
NEIL MITCHELL I guess 60 per cent of Syria is Sunni Muslims. Does that mean 60 per cent roughly of the refugees would be Sunni Muslim?
JULIE BISHOP We are looking at persecuted minorities, the Sunni majority in Syria is under the rule of a Shia minority but we are talking about the persecuted minorities. Let me give you an example, last year we took 2200 Syrian refugees and 2200 from Iraq and it was a mixture of some Muslim but mostly non-Muslim that’s the way it turned out. There were Christians, there were Druze, there were Maronites, there were Yazidis, any number, but they were considered on a case-by-case basis. But the proportion of those making up the persecuted minorities means that they will be the group from which we take our permanent refugees.
NEIL MITCHELL When will you expect the first refugees to arrive?
JULIE BISHOP Within weeks, we hope, this year.
NEIL MITCHELL And where will they go?
JULIE BISHOP Well that will depend on the accommodation that is available, the State that is prepared to house them and the communities that are prepared to accept them.
NEIL MITCHELL How long will it take to get them into the community?
JULIE BISHOP Well that is a matter for the settlement services to undertake. It does take some time because of course you have to find appropriate housing, you have to find schooling, you have to find places where they can access health care and of course we want them to have opportunities to take up employment so that they can contribute to the Australian society.
NEIL MITCHELL What is the character test that is referred to? How do you do that?
JULIE BISHOP They will require identification as well. We are not taking people who have thrown away their identification and come via a people smuggling trade so they will need identification papers. We do this all the time with the humanitarian and refugee program. I mean this is not the first time we’ve taken refugees under a humanitarian program. We have one of the most generous on a per capita basis in the world, so last year something like 13,000 under this humanitarian program, so we have people who do this as part of their job.
NEIL MITCHELL What about values? I read that they will be asked to agree to Australian values. How do you do that?
JULIE BISHOP Well that is what all people who are taking citizenship in Australia do, that is standard for those coming to Australia.
NEIL MITCHELL These people aren’t taking citizenship are they?
JULIE BISHOP Well they will be eligible for citizenship.
NEIL MITCHELL When?
JULIE BISHOP According to the usual rules of eligibility for citizenship.
NEIL MITCHELL With the security checks, do you think there is a risk of terrorist infiltration?
JULIE BISHOP The terrorist organisations have been stating that they have infiltrated countries in Europe through their refugee programs. I mean that’s the propaganda that the terrorist organisations are promoting so that is why we are sending our officials over there to interview, to carry out the security checks and assessments as best we can.
NEIL MITCHELL So is there a risk of terrorist infiltration?
JULIE BISHOP There is a risk of terrorist infiltration now. We have home grown terrorists in Australia. We have people coming into this country and with the best will in the world and there is always a risk. I mean the terrorists only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all of the time to ensure that we can keep our people safe.
NEIL MITCHELL Will we take more if this continues because it is, as you say, a genuine crisis?
JULIE BISHOP This is a one off, we have no plans to do that. I spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry last night and also other counterpart foreign ministers in the Middle East and discussed with him and with them what more can be done in relation to the humanitarian crisis.
That is why we’ve provided funding to support displaced people in the camps. We’ve provided extra funding that will directly support 240,000 people who are in camps and in places of refuge along the Syrian/Iraq border particularly in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. So Australia is doing its part on a humanitarian basis and we are certainly playing our part militarily on the security front and we are supporting the political solution in relation to the Assad regime.
NEIL MITCHELL Just finally Minister, if I may on that military area. It is suggested this military action could last two or three years. Correct?
JULIE BISHOP Well I don’t talk about it in that much detail, I’m not the Defence Minister. We’ve always spoken in terms of years not months.
NEIL MITCHELL Do you believe that the action will begin soon?
JULIE BISHOP Yes I do. The action is already underway. We are already involved in air strikes over Iraq. The air strikes by other Coalition partners are taking place over Syria. It just means that we join the operations over Syria so it is just an extension of what we are already doing.
NEIL MITCHELL Does that extension you believe potentially increase the security risk in Australia. Make us more of a target?
JULIE BISHOP I don’t believe so. I believe that what we must do is defeat this terrorist organisation and prevent Australian citizens from fighting with it in Iraq and Syria and prevent Australian citizens from supporting it here at home so that we don’t have a terrorist attack in this country.
NEIL MITCHELL Minister, thank you for your time.
JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.
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