Australia promises places for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine

Australia will take refugees from Ukraine as Coalition MPs urge their government to do everything it can to help the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war.

The country is already fast-tracking visa applications from Ukrainians and will support people who have flooded into neighbouring Poland as well as those who want to settle elsewhere, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

He flagged a special intake of refugees on top of Australia’s existing annual humanitarian allocation, as well as offering skilled migrants or students priority.

The Ukrainian embassy in Canberra estimates that Australia’s Ukrainian community is 38,000 strong.

At least 150,000 people have already fled Ukraine into Poland and other neighbouring countries as invading Russian forces push towards Kyiv, the United Nations refugee agency says. A further 100,000 are displaced within Ukraine.

The UN agency has estimated up to 4 million refugees could flee if the situation further deteriorates.

Mr Morrison said Australia’s focus right now was on providing immediate relief to the people fleeing across the borders.

“But Australia will be very prepared to take more and more and more as we have with Afghanistan,” he told reporters outside St Andrew’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lidcombe, where he attended a special service on Sunday.

“The ultimate numbers will be determined down the track and that will involve, I have no doubt taking numbers in addition to our normal program.”

He noted Australia’s low immigration levels over the past two years – while borders were closed – mean there was “quite a lot of room … to take in more places” in other migration streams too.

Australia is taking in 10,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, who will be allocated spots in the existing annual humanitarian visa program, which has 13,750 places each year. Another 5000 places in the family visa program are also being allocated to Afghans.

However, during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, the government added 12,000 spots on top of the regular humanitarian intake.

Liberal MP Jason Falinski, whose grandparents were Polish Jews who fled to Australia in the 1950s, said he’d like to see an approach similar to the Syria program.

“We should be doing as much as we possibly can,” he said.

“Given my family’s own personal history, I’m just so grateful to be in a country that’s open and helping people.”

Angie Bell, the member for Moncrieff, noted visas of all types for Ukrainians were being given priority.

“I believe the best and most effective model to assist those from Ukraine is to grant visas where citizens have temporary safe harbour here in Australia as we did during the Balkan conflict of the early 90s,” she said.

Colleague Dave Sharma backed “a generous humanitarian response” to the crisis, although he recognised it was very early days for those who had fled the conflict.

“They probably don’t have in their minds that they’d want to resettle and make a new life just yet,” he said.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said his government would be willing to assist the federal government to resettle Ukrainian refugees.

“We have a proud Ukrainian community here in Victoria – and we would work alongside that community to welcome any Ukrainian families seeking either temporary shelter or a new home here,” he said.

Victorian Liberal senator Sarah Henderson and colleague Fiona Martin, the member for the Sydney seat of Reid where St Andrew’s is located, both said it was too early to say how many Ukrainians would need Australia’s help but the country would do its part to share the load.