Sydney (AFP) - Australia insisted its humanitarian program was non-discriminatory Friday after South Africa reacted furiously to suggestions "persecuted" white farmers could be fast-tracked into the country, as the minister involved was called a racist.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton sparked controversy by singling out the farmers' need to flee "horrific circumstances" for a "civilised country".
According to police, 74 farmers were murdered between 2016 and 2017 in South Africa, which has one of the world's highest crime rates.
Dutton's decision to examine whether they deserve "special attention" for acceptance on refugee or humanitarian grounds led to South Africa hauling in Australia's envoy to Pretoria for a ticking off.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya demanded in a statement that he retract the comments, saying the government was offended.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stopped short of defending his minister when pressed Friday, insisting Australia had a non-discriminatory humanitarian program.
"We have migrants to Australia from every part of the world... and we have a refugee program that is non-discriminatory," he said.
"We have a very large South African community of Australians of South African ancestry, from every background, and they make a phenomenal contribution to our very successful multicultural society."
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop denied there was a double standard in Dutton speaking up for white South African farmers but not Palestinian farmers persecuted by Israel, as noted by some commentators.
"I reject that. What we do in our humanitarian visa program is assess visas on their merits and that's what Peter Dutton as home affairs minister does every day," she told ABC radio.
She added that the message from Canberra to Pretoria was "that they seek to ensure the security of all their citizens".
"We certainly urge the South African government to ensure that any changes to land ownership are not disruptive to the economy or lead to violence."
South Africa has vowed to enact land "expropriation without compensation" to redress land confiscations of the colonial and apartheid era.
Dutton, who has drawn criticism in the past for cracking down on asylum-seekers from Asia and the Middle East, was called "an out-and-out racist" by Greens leader Richard di Natale.
He suggested the stance on South African farmers signalled a return to the "White Australia" policy, referring to laws in place for seven decades from 1901 that prevented non-white immigrants settling Down Under.
"There's no debate as far as I'm concerned, the bloke is an out-and-out racist," he told reporters.
"According to Peter Dutton, if you're a white South African farmer you are going to make a great contribution, you're not going to bludge on welfare. But if you're not white, you won't do any of those things."
Up to 500,000 white South Africans have left the country in the past 30 years, according to official statistics, with Australia ranking as the top destination.