26/05/2016 10:06 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST

The Real Cost Of (Not) Settling Refugees In Australia

Our policies are costly indeed, in both fiscal and human terms.

Getty Editorial

Week two of our election marathon was marked by the counter-intuitive claim that "illiterate and innumerate" refugees "languish in unemployment queues" and "on Medicare" (sic), while simultaneously taking the jobs of genuine Australians.

The trend on Twitter was to dismiss Minister Dutton's rant as either dog-whistle or 'dead cat' politics: either an appeal to our inner xenophobe or an attempt to distract us from the policy elephants in the room. By week three, government reinforcements were interpolating the Minister's statements as a real-world assessment of how much our generous refugee re-settlement programs cost.

For us, the debate confirms that much of Australian policy towards refugees and asylum seekers has become confused, incoherent and counter-productive. At the centre of this latest confusion is the tendency in government to draw a sharp line between 'good' refugees -- those brought to Australia through organised programs -- and the 'bad' refugees who enter without permission as asylum seekers.

Let's gloss over the fact that international law prohibits such discrimination.

The simple truth is that the bipartisan race to deter and deny 'irregular' humanitarian migration has produced punitive policies that destroy lives and actively impede the integration and social acceptance of refugees in Australia. Our policies are costly indeed, in both fiscal and human terms -- and for all refugees.

But let's start with the 'unauthorised maritime arrival' refugees. Labor's No Advantage policy of November 2012 forced these people into reliance on welfare, denying them access to both status determination processes and work to support themselves. The Coalition's changes to the law in December 2014 condemned these refugees (yet again) to lives of hardship in a country where they sought sanctuary. A core aspect of the 'Legacy Caseload' legislation -- fast track processing -- means that many asylum claims are failing where once they would have been accepted. The system entrenches inequalities in access to justice (and extends delays as appeals are lodged).

For recognised refugees, punishment continues in the form of temporary protection visas (TPVs). Although an improvement on earlier versions, these visas still perpetuate debilitating uncertainty through the triennial threat of return to persecution. As before, TPVs foster distrust in potential employers such that many struggle to find employment. Young refugees who arrived by boat are denied equal access to tertiary education, stifling potential and risking descent into lives of dependency and abuse.

Their only path to permanency now is through a five year 'Safe Haven Enterprise' or SHEV visa, available to those willing and able to work or study in a designated rural area for at least 3.5 years. Eighteen months into this scheme, only a handful of SHEV visas have been issued to the nearly 30,000 people who should be eligible. Even then, the path to permanence is long and tenuous, requiring transition from the SHEV to a skilled visa. With limited or no assistance in learning English or in acquiring needed qualifications, this is a big ask.

All this is before we consider the billions spent on offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and on maritime interdiction operations. No Australian can now claim ignorance of the human cost of keeping refugees in detention for prolonged periods, most particularly when detention involves conditions decried by the United Nations as cruel and inhuman.

Others have been eloquent in their praise of the role refugees have played in building modern Australia -- even those who came as UMAs such as orthopaedic surgeon Munjed Al-Muderis. Ask any refugee, however, and they will attest to the impact the negative discourse can have on the way they are treated as individuals. There is a reason why so many resort to establishing small businesses in lieu of paid employment.

For us, the real offence is in the politicians' continuing willingness to use these people as political footballs.

The Coalition blames Labor's misplaced generosity in dismantling its first Pacific Solution for the surge in boat arrivals between 2008 and 2013. Others have seen both sides as part of the problem. On either view, our politicians should be taking some collective responsibility for the presence in Australia of the 'Legacy caseload' refugees and those it has condemned to offshore detention and processing.

At some point, there needs to be agreement that the national interest is not served by perpetuating harms and fomenting fear and loathing of these people.

In the context of a world awash with refugees, Australia's behaviour demeans us all.