KIERAN GILBERT Minister you’ve spoken with your colleague Peter Dutton. What’s the update this morning?

JULIE BISHOP Peter Dutton has had a meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres overnight in Paris. His is meeting with more officials today and also the International Organisation of Migration to discuss the numbers, the groups of people that we would be able to take and the process of resettling them.

Australia will play its part but it has got to be part of an international response. No one country can do this alone. No one region can do this alone. That’s why I’m also in contact with counterpart Foreign Ministers to ascertain what they are doing, that includes countries in the Gulf, in the Middle East, not just the western European countries.

KIERAN GILBERT Are you inclined to an increase in the overall intake? Even if it is just a temporary increase to help relieve the burden because I know, as you say, not one country can do it but obviously Australian has to play a part where possible.

JULIE BISHOP There are also different groups of people fleeing from Syria. There are some who are seeking temporary safe haven and want to return home when it is safe to do so. There are others who believe that they would be persecuted whatever the outcome of the conflict in Syria and they are looking for permanent resettlement. We are looking at what we can do.

Australia does resettlement very well, that is we take people permanently but we immediately provide them with support, with services, health, education and this is all done through our Social Services Department. So we do this exceedingly well but we are also looking at a question of whether or not temporary safe haven, like we did in the case of Kosovo, would be an option but we are considering these matters and it will be the subject of Cabinet discussion.

KIERAN GILBERT And also the possibility of an increase overall? Even if it is a one off?

JULIE BISHOP These are matters that we will discuss in Cabinet. I don’t want to pre-empt any discussion that the Prime Minister has with Peter Dutton but most certainly we are considering a number of options and likewise I’m considering an increase in the humanitarian aid that we have provided to Syria. Already about $156 million, $40 million of it to got to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to enable these processes of looking at the different groups who are seeking resettlement or seeking safe haven and doing our part.

KIERAN GILBERT When you talk about the minorities and the people who might be persecuted if they return, when you look at the Syrian situation I guess that is quite a long list when you think about the Assad regime persecuting other fellow Muslims, they’re the Alowite of course, they’ve persecuted everyone.

JULIE BISHOP The Assad regime is an Alawite, Shia offshoot, but it is a Sunni majority but they are also Kurds, Christians, Assyrians, Jews, and then in Iraq, because this is essentially one theatre of war, it is a Shia majority so the Sunnis are a minority and claim persecution from time to time but there are also Christians, Maronites, Yazidis, Mandeans and so there a number of different groups that believe that they have been persecuted over many years and a number of them have been in camps for many years.

I was in Lebanon and Jordan last year, I met with the UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration, went to a registration centre, talked with people and the stories vary, different people are looking for different solutions to what is a humanitarian crisis.

KIERAN GILBERT So when you say the persecuted, for example, it is not just the Christians, it could be any one of those religions or sects that are being persecuted?

JULIE BISHOP There are ethnic and religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq who claim to be persecuted and we are certainly focussing on women and children, families who have been in these camps on the border of Lebanon and Jordan, now Turkey, are really bearing the brunt of this and so we will be focussing on taking people from those camps.

KIERAN GILBERT I want to ask you about some comments made by the Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi. He says that the image of the drowned toddler has been used to evoke emotion. He says the boy’s death was not related to the crisis in Syria because the family had been living in Turkey for years. He also says that there is, at this stage, I don’t believe any need for the hundreds of thousands of people to be ditching their ID and trying to get into Europe for reasons of safety because many have been very safely ensconced working and housed in places like Turkey. What do you make of his intervention where he says it’s an opportunistic cycle that we are seeing in part at the moment?

JULIE BISHOP Well clearly we will be getting information from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees and the International Organisation of Migration. They make the assessments. We work in partnership with them and they provide us with names and access to people who they believe require resettlement in Australia. We work very closely with them and those who might be opportunistic would obviously not meet the criteria of the UNHCR.

KIERAN GILBERT But the vast bulk, surely, can’t be described in that context? It is offensive, isn’t it, for a member of our upper house, in the safe confines of this building saying that people are being opportunistic when they are fleeing the circumstances of which you are talking about?

JULIE BISHOP I don’t believe he could be referring to people leaving Syria. The conflict in Syria is appalling. The Assad regime is accused of using chemical weapons against civilian populations, the terrorist organisations are accused of the most barbaric and brutal acts against civilian populations and they have taken over swathes of the Syrian border region, the al-Raqqa province. There is another terrorist organisation - al Nusra Front - that is carrying out attacks on civilian populations, the Khorasan Group is another group operating within Syria and then we have the conflict in Iraq, it is one theatre of war, so people fleeing from Syria are fleeing from the most diabolical circumstances.

KIERAN GILBERT You’ve been to some of these camps. Can you blame individuals who have been, as Cory Bernardi describes it, safely ensconced? They might be safe but these camps are horrific in some parts like Lebanon where there is more than 1.2 million refugees just from Syria alone, they’re in Jordan as well. Can you blame them for wanting to get a better life for their children if they are in these camps?

JULIE BISHOP In Lebanon people have been fleeing from Syria for some time. A number of them are living with family and friends, in communities, but others are in camps. Of course, life in a camp is no picnic at all and so these are very challenging circumstances for us to deal with. As I say, no one country can do it. It requires a collective global effort and Australia will be part of that.

KIERAN GILBERT But does it frustrate you that one of your own colleagues, a member of the Liberal Party [inaudible] an opportunistic cycle, when surely the vast bulk here are genuine refugees fleeing violence and persecution?

JULIE BISHOP Kieran, I focus on the task at hand, and that is to calibrate Australia’s response, speak to my Cabinet colleagues about this. Obviously the Prime Minister has the lead on this and he is working directly with Peter Dutton to ascertain what we can do. We have a very generous resettlement program already and people confuse resettlement with safe haven. There are many people who may want to go back to Syria and Iraq when the conflict is over or when they believe it is safe to do so. It is their home, it is where they want to be. There are others who believe they must leave permanently and want to seek permanent residence in other countries and Australia will do its fair share.

KIERAN GILBERT Can we turn to the air strikes, obviously the Prime Minister spoke about refugees but also using force to try and beat the so-called Islamic State.

JULIE BISHOP We want to be part of the solution. We can look to the cause of the conflict and that is the Assad regime, and there is a process in place, the Geneva Communique, which is looking at a political settlement. Australia supports that. That was a settlement proposed in 2012 and we’ve been a very vocal supporter of that to put in place a transnational and transitional government in Syria. But there is also the terrorist organisation that has to be defeated because it is carrying out these evil terrorist attacks on civilian populations. We are part of the Coalition in Iraq and we’ve been asked to take part in Syria and that’s the subject of consideration by our National Security Committee this week.

KIERAN GILBERT And that’s likely today as I understand it?

JULIE BISHOP It will be sometime this week.

KIERAN GILBERT In terms of just finally on that, the British have, the British Prime Minister has confirmed that they’ve taken part in air strikes that have killed two of their citizens. You could well be in a situation where the same thing happens.

JULIE BISHOP There are Australians who are fighting with this terrorist organisation overseas, that is a breach of Australian law, but it also means they are putting their own lives in mortal danger. Fighting with a terrorist organisation in the middle of conflict is a recipe for the most disastrous outcome.

KIERAN GILBERT Minister thanks for your time.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555