Melbourne: Australia on Thursday said that it was stepping up its refugee intake to 20,000 from 13,750 annually -- the "biggest" increase in 30 years -- under new changes to its humanitarian programme which would focus on accepting more Afghans and Sri Lankans as well as Burmese who are in India.
The hike in the annual refugee quota is in line with one of the key points of an expert panel`s report on asylum seeker policy submitted to the Government earlier this month, ABC reported.
"It is the biggest increase to the humanitarian programme in 30 years," Prime Minister Julia Gillard was quoted saying.
She said the move was welcomed by other countries in the region.
"This is important because we want to send two messages to asylum seekers," she said."Message number one, if you get on a boat, you are at risk of being transferred to Nauru or PNG. But message number two, if you stay where you are then there are more resettlement places available in Australia."
Commenting on the new development, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the increase would focus on taking more Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees, as well as Syrians and Iraqis who have fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
"In terms of the make-up of the 20,000, I know there will be interest where this will be targeted. Of course, key groups that will figure in the 20,000 are Afghans, whether they be in Pakistan, Iran or Indonesia," he said, adding "Of course Sri Lankan refugees will continue to figure in our programme, as will Burmese in Malaysia, Thailand and India.”
"We`ll continue to work with the UNHCR on key resettlement outcomes for people from the Congo, Eritreans and Ethiopians and other people in retracted situations in Africa."
Bowen said the programme was expected to cost around 150 million dollars in the next financial year.
"At this stage the indications are that increasing the humanitarian programme by an additional 6,250 places in 2012-13 will cost around 150 million dollars, with a potential cost impact of 1.3 billion dollars over the forward estimates," he said.