Australia's Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has slightly softened his rhetoric about resettling illiterate refugees following a backlash.

Dutton came under fire for claiming "illiterate and innumerate" refugees would swamp welfare queues and take the jobs of locals if the annual humanitarian intake was substantially increased.

"I'm not going to stand back from what I said," he told 2GB Radio yesterday.

But Dutton toned down his earlier language, which critics slammed as xenophobic.


"Refugees contribute a lot, there are many success stories, we celebrate all of that but we need to be honest about the fact that many people come here with no English skills," he said.

One in two will have never been in paid work, Dutton said.

"It's not a reflection on people we are bringing in now but we have to recognise facts that people come here without formal education and without skills and we provide funding to improve their skills and that's a good thing," he said.

The minister accused Labor of plucking a number out of thin air with its plan to increase the refugee intake to 27,000 a year and was scathing of the Greens policy to take 50,000.

The coalition supports an increase from 13,750 now to 18,750 by 2018/19.

Dutton said the Opposition hadn't done enough homework to spell out how it would provide resettlement services.

Resettlement costs would increase to A$1 billion ($1.1 billion) under Labor and A$7 billion under the Greens' plan, Dutton said.

Former Liberal Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said Australia should be proud it accepts illiterate and innumerate refugees for resettlement because it gives girls an opportunity for an education.