WELLINGTON - New Zealand announced Monday it will take 750 Syrian refugees over the next three years after coming under intense pressure to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Europe.
Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said 150 places would be offered to Syrians under the government's existing quota, and an extra 600 people from the war-torn country would be accepted through a special emergency intake.
New Zealand currently has an annual refugee quota of 750, which has not risen since 1987.
"Like most New Zealanders, the government is very concerned at the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Syria and Europe that has visibly worsened in recent times," Woodhouse said.
The move represents an about-turn for the conservative government after Prime Minister John Key last week ruled out changing the refugee intake until next year.
But the public demanded action after images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi's tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach brought the human cost of the crisis into devastating focus.
The news comes just a day after neighbouring Australia, which has also come under pressure to do more said it intended to take more Syrian refugees but without upping its existing 2015-16 refugee quota of 13,750.
But in fresh comments Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott left the issue open, saying he would await advice from his minister for immigration, currently in Europe, before announcing the government's final decision.
"The government's firm intention (is) to take a significant number of people from Syria this year," Abbott told parliament.
"The women and children in camps, in particular, the women and children from persecuted minorities in camps, they deserve a compassionate response from Australia." Woodhouse said New Zealand's move was comparable to its response to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 when it took in an extra 600 refugees.
He said a review of refugee quotas would be completed by mid-2016, when numbers could be increased again.
"(But) there are practical limitations around our ability to provide enough housing, translators, health services - all factors we need to take into consideration," he said.
Critics such as Amnesty International say the wealthy nation of 4.5 million should be doing more, calling for an immediate doubling of the existing quota to 1,500.
"The government should be asking how much, not how little, it can do to help save innocent lives," Amnesty New Zealand director Grant Bayldon said.
"Doubling our refugee quota is the least we can do after 28 years without an increase."