Djokovic’s ‘Dirty’ Detention Puts Refugee Plight on World Stage
(Bloomberg) -- The protesters gathered outside a Melbourne hotel that detains asylum seekers were chanting for freedom on Friday afternoon. But most were calling for the release of sports superstar Novak Djokovic, not the refugees that have been locked inside for months or even years.
The world’s No. 1 tennis player and vaccine-mandate critic had been whisked to the hotel the previous day by authorities after the Australian Border Force determined he’d offered insufficient proof to enter the country under current pandemic rules and should be deported.
As his lawyers began court proceedings to appeal the move ahead of a final decision expected early next week, just days before the Australian Open grand slam event begins, back in Serbia his family were describing to the media the squalid conditions of Djokovic’s hotel room.
“They are keeping him like a prisoner -- it’s just not fair, it’s not human,” his mother Dijana Djokovic told reporters in Belgrade. “It’s just some small immigration hotel, if it is a hotel at all. With bugs, it’s all dirty, the food is terrible.”
Djokovic staying in the digs used to detain asylum seekers is shining the global spotlight back on Australia’s decades-long treatment of refugees it deems to be illegal migrants. While the number held by Australia, mainly in camps on remote islands, has dwindled from about 1,000 in 2019 to just under 300 now, the ruling conservatives have no plans to ease the policy they say helps deter smugglers from ferrying vulnerable people seeking to enter without proper visas.
Around lunchtime on Friday, a few dozen supporters and protesters remained outside the Park Hotel to the north of Melbourne’s central business district, which the asylum seekers describe as lacking exercise equipment, poorly ventilated and susceptible to Covid outbreaks. A sign hangs inside one window reading “9 YRS LONG.”
“They’ve gone through so much and our problems are so insignificant in comparison,” said Nicola Turner, 33, who was carrying a placard saying “Human Rights Not Optional”. “It’s good to think that everyone’s going to see this and what Australia is doing.”
Australia has taken a tough stance on asylum seekers arriving by boat since 2001, when then-Prime Minister John Howard refused to let in a vessel carrying more than 400 people, mostly Afghans. His core message “We will decide who comes to this country” and detaining refugees in offshore island camps, resonated with voters and helped him win re-election.
The conservatives’ current strategy, labeled Operation Sovereign Borders, was masterminded by the nation’s then immigration minister and now Prime Minister Scott Morrison. After interviewing him in 2018 after his surprise rise to national leader, The New York Times noted: “His office features a model migrant boat bearing the proud declaration ‘I Stopped These’.”
The current immigration minister, Alex Hawke, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment. The government said Australia has “resettled more than 920,000 refugees and others in need” since the end of World War II and has allocated 13,750 places to its Refugee and Humanitarian Program for the year to June 30.
While the issue of asylum-seeker detention made the news last year due to the plight of a Sri Lankan Tamil couple and their two young daughters who’ve been detained on an isolated Australian island for almost two years, it’s unlikely to become a hot-button topic for national elections due by May.
For the Human Rights Watch, that might change thanks to Djokovic’s detention.
“Novak probably doesn’t have much else to do over the next few days, so we hope he can use his fame and sway to do something about this deeply inhumane and cruel policy,” Sophie McNeill, the Australia researcher for the rights group, said from her Perth base. “We all know Novak is going to get out within just a few days, but these other poor people won’t.”
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