Immigration Minister Peter Dutton speaks to the media at Parliament House on May 3, 2016, in Canberra, Australia. (Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

Immigration and asylum are divisive subjects in Australia. So when Peter Dutton, home affairs minister and a defender of Australia's controversial offshore asylum-seeker facilities, suggested this week that a “civilized country” such as Australia should fast-track humanitarian visas for people who were being “persecuted” and needed help, many took notice.

But Dutton's comments have been unusually controversial because of a key detail — he appeared to be talking specifically about white people.

In an article published by Australia's Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, Dutton was quoted as saying that white South African farmers may “deserve special attention” from Australia because of land seizures and violence. “If you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it's a horrific circumstance they face,” Dutton told the newspaper.

“I do think on the information that I've seen, people do need help, and they need help from a civilized country like ours,” Dutton said.

Dutton's remarks came in the aftermath of plans from new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that would allow farm lands to be expropriated without compensation and redistributed. The motion is likely to disproportionately affect white South Africans, who own 72 percent of agricultural land in the country, according to government statistics, despite making up an estimated 8 percent of the country's population.

In response to Dutton's remarks, Pretoria summoned Australia's high commissioner Thursday. “There is no reason for any Government anywhere in the world to suspect that any South African is in danger from their own democratically elected Government,” Ndivhuwo Mabaya, a spokesman for South Africa’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement. “That threat simply does not exist.”

Support for the plight of white South Africans cut a contrast to Dutton's statements about other migrants and asylum seekers hoping to come to Australia. A member of the center-right Liberal Party, he served as minister of immigration from 2014 to 2017. During that period, he oversaw a policy for housing asylum seekers off shore on Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea, and the island of Nauru.

Many had risked their lives to reach Australia illegally by boat; a 2016 report by the Australian government found the nationalities best represented were Iranians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Afghans. Criticisms of conditions at the camps and alleged human rights abuses made worldwide headlines and prompted Papua New Guinea to order the Manus Island facility to be shut down.

Despite these concerns, last year Dutton criticized asylum seekers who had been held in Manus Island and Nauru who were being moved for resettlement in the United States, describing them in a radio interview as “economic refugees” who had “Armani jeans and handbags.”

Dutton has also described immigration from Lebanon in the late 20th century as a mistake, and earlier this year he claimed there was an “African gang crisis” in the state of Victoria that had left Australians scared to go out. “If people haven’t integrated, if they’re not abiding by our laws, if they’re not adhering to our culture, then they’re not welcome here,” Dutton told 2GB radio in January.

On Twitter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an activist and author, contrasted Dutton's support for South African farmers with his muted stance on asylum seekers who are Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in Burma.

The plight of South African farmers has become a big issue in Australia, already home to a sizable immigrant community from South Africa. Australian media, in particular politically right-leaning publications such as the Daily Telegraph, have reported extensively on reports of rape, torture and murder of white South African farmers.

Groups such as Africa Check have criticized the data behind some of these concerns, and analysts say that South Africa's push for land law reform is so far proceeding cautiously, without the chaos that accompanied a similar movement in Zimbabwe. Even so, a number of Australian politicians support Dutton's proposal to consider taking in South African farmers.

In an interview with ABC, Ian Goodenough, a Liberal MP who represents an electorate in Western Australia and himself an immigrant from Singapore, compared a potential intake of South African farmers to a previous relocation of Syrian refugees. “Violence and suffering affects all people universally,” he told ABC.

Another Liberal MP, Andrew Hastie, has previously used social media to describe white South Africans as “the persecuted minority nobody cares about” and suggested that they are the victims of an “orchestrated terror campaign.”

I'm outraged by these reports, and I know many of you are as well. I've invited the Minister for Citizenship and...

Posted by Andrew Hastie on Monday, March 12, 2018

There have been similar pushes for the United States to take in South African farmers, though they have failed to gain widespread attraction or political momentum. Critics say that the movement to take in white farmers has links to the far right, which have long spread the idea of a “white genocide” taking place in South Africa.

In an interview with 2GB Radio on Thursday, Dutton downplayed race as a deciding factor in his support for South African farmers, instead saying that people who were being persecuted, “regardless of whether it's because of religion or the color of their skin or whatever,” deserved Australian assistance.

However, he emphasized that the South African community already in Australia were “the sorts of migrants that we want to bring into our country,” as they work hard and integrate. Though census data say there are more than 180,000 Australian residents who were born in South Africa, data is not collected on their ethnicity.

So far, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has not given his backing to Dutton's statement about South African farmers. Asked about the subject in parliament Wednesday, he said: “We have a refugee program that is nondiscriminatory.”

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