For most purposes, being a permanent resident in Australia is just as good as being a citizen. You can’t vote for state or federal parliament (some states allow you to vote for local government), but you can do most other things: work, open bank accounts, travel freely, get welfare benefits, and so on.

One big difference, though, is that permanent residency isn’t really permanent: under a variety of circumstances, the immigration minister has a discretion to cancel an immigrant’s visa and have them deported.

This is what happened to Robert Jovicic, a serial burglar and heroin user, who was sent last year to Serbia – a country he had never been to and whose language he cannot speak. Even worse, according to ABC Lateline last night, the Serbian government refuses to recognise him as a citizen, so he has no right to employment or welfare there.

Statelessness is recognised worldwide as a highly prejudicial condition, often the first step towards racial discrimination or worse. The post-war Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which Australia is a signatory, commits Australia to avoid making people stateless except in carefully defined cases. Technically, however, the government is within its legal rights. Jovicic was not born in Australia (although he lived here from the age of two) and never acquired Australian nationality, so the Australian government has no obligations to him.

But there is an air of unreality to this argument. Jovicic has lived in Australia almost all his life; his family is here, all his roots are here. Maybe other countries have obligations to him as well, such as France (where he was born) and Serbia (the nationality of his parents). But it is no less than wilful blindness to deny that Australia also has a moral obligation to its long-term legal residents.

Sadly, however, it is consistent with the Howard government’s attitude to immigration: although it has continued a high immigration policy, it is addicted to symbolic measures that scapegoat immigrants. Nor is it alone in this: in the wake of this month’s riots, one of the French government’s remedies was a promise to deport non-citizen rioters, even if they had permanent resident status. It’s mostly symbolic, since almost all the rioters were French citizens, but what it symbolises is something ugly.

Mr Jovicic’s fate is not just symbolic, it is also real and tragic. No-one claims he is a saint; he has, rightly, served time in prison for his burglaries. But by what argument of proportionality is it right to also punish him by exile, with no means of support, to the other side of the world?