CANBERRA, Australia – The Australian government remained committed to resettling 12,000 Syrian refugees, but security checks could take more than a year, officials said Monday.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced in September that the 12,000 refugees would be resettled from Middle Eastern refugee camps as quickly as possible. Abbott was replaced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull less than a week later. The first families began arriving in Australia this month.
Government lawmaker Cory Bernardi said Monday that Cabinet should rethink that commitment in light of the threat militants could pose as refugees in Australia. He said the recent coordinated attacks in Paris had highlighted the dangers.
But Cabinet ministers including Treasurer Scott Morrison and Counterterrorism Minister Michael Keenan stood by the decision.
"These would have to be — arguably — the most screened group of people you could think of," Morrison told Sydney radio 2GB.
"Taking 12,000 people from Syria was the right thing to do several months ago and it's still the right thing to do today," Keenan told reporters.
Peter Shergold, coordinator-general for refugee resettlement in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, said the careful screening would hold up the resettlement process.
"I'm working on the basis that the vast majority will come next year and it will probably be over 12 or 18 months, not six months," Shergold told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Debate over the Syrian refugees was rekindled as an opinion poll showed Monday that 44 percent of respondents thought Australia should take fewer than 12,000 refugees from Syria. Another 27 percent said 12,000 was about right and 22 percent said Australia should accept a larger number.
The poll by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll and published in The Australian newspaper was based on a weekend survey of 1,573 voters nationwide. It had a 3 percentage point margin of error.
The Syrian refugee intake is on top of Australia's usual annual intake of 13,750 refugees from around the world.