Australian (un)Open? How the Novak Djokovic saga exposes Canberra's cruel immigration system
A week ago, it felt like Melbourne’s Park hotel was the most-watched building in the world. Journalists and news cameras from international news outlets like the BBC and New York Times jostled for space on the street as two groups of protestors shouted slogans while police watched nearby.
The two groups of protestors had different motives. The crowd waving Serbian flags were there in support of Novak Djokovic, the superstar, unvaccinated tennis player detained in the hotel after Australian authorities cancelled his visa for breaching the country’s strict Covid regulations.
The remaining few were refugee rights activists, who were there to draw attention to the 32 asylum seekers indefinitely detained at the same hotel by the Australian government, a practice forbidden under international law.
Some of these refugees, like Iranian Mehdi Ali, have been in custody for up to nine years, and the Park hotel is just the last stop in a nightmarish ordeal faced by thousands of refugees detained by Australia over the years.
"For two decades, the Australian government has operated one of the world’s strictest asylum seeker policies, taking what it calls a "zero tolerance" approach to off-shore arrivals, namely those who arrive by boat"
At the hotel, or “alternative place of detention” as the Australian government calls it, asylum seekers complain of maggots and mould in their food. There are no outdoor facilities for detainees and their rooms’ windows are sealed shut.
“I was just shocked,” said Mustafa Salah, an Iraqi asylum seeker held at the hotel. “The food they’ve been delivering is putting people in danger. Even an animal cannot eat this type of food.”
The hotel has also been used during the pandemic to quarantine Australian citizens returning from overseas, leading to outbreaks of Covid-19 among the asylum seekers detained there: at least 20 tested positive, despite being confined to a single room for most of the day.
The Park hotel, which describes itself as a “luxurious 4.5-star hotel set in a prime location in the centre of Carlton”, is the latest stop on a long journey for asylum seekers like Mustafa, some of whom made their way to Australia as teenagers.
Many spent time on Nauru and Manus Island, two islands used by Australia as offshore detention centres. Manus Island processing centre was shut down in 2019 but over 200 asylum seekers remain on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
I came to Australia asking for safety when I was just 15 years old.— Mehdi Ali (@MehdiAli98) January 17, 2022
Now I am 24 and still in detention.
If I'm not a refugee, why would I endure such a difficult time as a child if I have the option to go back to where I came from? Even then, I'm not safe in detention either. pic.twitter.com/yrFMWt9AyR
For two decades, the Australian government has operated one of the world’s strictest asylum seeker policies, taking what it calls a "zero tolerance" approach to off-shore arrivals, namely those who arrive by boat.
Australia’s Migration Act declares that non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa are “unlawful” and therefore must be detained in immigration detention.
Asylum seekers who make their way from the nearby Indonesia by sea are picked by patrolling Australian warships, taken to mainland Australia for processing before being transported to detention facilities offshore, namely Nauru or Papua New Guinea. This practice contravenes international law, which dictates that refugees must be given a chance to apply for asylum upon arrival in a country, without being sent away.
“Australia’s abusive offshore processing policy has caused immeasurable suffering for thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers,” said Human Rights Watch in July 2021. “The cruelty of these camps, in which seven people have committed suicide and children have been terribly traumatised, should not be replicated elsewhere.”
Conservative lawmakers in Europe, specifically Denmark and the UK, have looked to Australia’s offshore detention process as a possible model for the future, something activists have warned against. But it’s unlikely that EU law would permit such treatment of asylum seekers, analysts say.
Australia set up these offshore processing centres as a deterrent to refugees hoping to enter Australia by boat, again contravening refugee law, which dictates that policies must not be implemented for the sole purpose of deterrents.
Amnesty International has called this approach a “deliberate abuse of cruelty”.
Elections in Australia have been won and lost over which of the two major parties are toughest on what they call “boat people”. Of all the political slogans to have been used in the past 20 years, every Australian would be familiar with one in particular: “Stop the boats”.
Australia’s immigration laws grant overwhelming authority to border authorities, all in the name of protecting its citizens. “We will do what is necessary to keep our country safe,” said former prime minister Tony Abbott, one of the architects of this hardline approach, in 2015.
"The Australian government lets asylum seekers drown and die in camps made of islands, but a tennis player, who according to media reports has lied several times, is allowed to enter the country"
Eyes on Australia
The Djokovic saga has sparked countless stories in international news outlets about Australia’s asylum policies, with many readers of the New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera likely reading about their cruelty for the first time. News features in Arabic, French, Spanish and German also detailed the long history of abuses.
“This Djokovic thing shows how privileged some white people are,” tweeted the Moroccan-German journalist Mohamed Amjahid. “The Australian government lets asylum seekers drown and die in camps made of islands, but a tennis player, who according to media reports has lied several times, is allowed to enter the country.”
Journalists conveyed shock at the cruel manner in which asylum seekers are handled, discovering something refugees and their supporters in Australia have known for decades.
The way Djokovic got special treatment in court, the way he has shaken the country - while the experiences of refugees did not- shows that Aus gov and right wing media have succeeded in dehumanising refugees. Only through dehuminasation are these distinctions possible.— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) January 16, 2022
Throughout the pandemic, however, the conversation has subsided, even allowing the government to introduce a new law that gives them the legal authority to indefinitely detain refugees, possibly for their whole lives.
"The problem is we don't have any human rights protection or any minimum standards of immigration detention that's enshrined in Australian law by which we can use legal means to have these men released,” Carolyn Graydon of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre told ABC.
Since a late-night flight brought Djokovic to Australia on January 5, Djokovic had two expedited court hearings at the Federal Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over immigration matters.
Asylum seekers are rarely, if ever, gifted with such fast-moving bureaucracy, usually waiting for months, or years, for news on their application. When it is their day in court, they rarely win, reflecting the enormous power of Australia’s immigration laws.
Eight months ago, the Federal Court threw out an appeal against a temporary law criminalising Australian citizens travelling home from India, given its high Covid-19 infection rates at the time. It was the only rule of its kind in the world.
In 2018, the same Melbourne court that halted Djokovic’s deportation ruled that the parents of a Tamil family seeking Asylum could be deported, after deciding the father was not a “genuine refugee”. He had visited Sri Lanka during the civil war he had fled from and there was “no evidence to suggest” his family still living in Sri Lanka was at risk from authorities.
But Djokovic, who likely misled authorities with his travel declaration, was originally granted the right to stay by that same court.
Australia’s Federal Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke moved quickly to cancel Djokovic’s visa for the second time after that decision, leading to another quickly arranged court hearing. It resulted in Djokovic being deported on Sunday, January 16, ten days after he arrived in Australia.
"Some have called upon Djokovic to use his platform to raise awareness around their plight, but that hasn’t happened just yet"
The 30-odd men in Park hotel, and many more in detention centres around Australia, won’t be walking free. The same ministerial powers that had Djokovic deported could be used to instantly free the men trapped in the hotel but, of course, they haven’t been exercised.
Some have called upon Djokovic to use his platform to raise awareness around their plight, but that hasn’t happened just yet.
It’s essential that, even after Djokovic is back home in Serbia, publications in Australia and beyond keep the focus on the country’s cruel and illegal treatment of asylum seekers, if only as a deterrent to any country in the EU and elsewhere looking to emulate its inhumane policies.
Matt Unicomb is an Australian journalist based in Berlin. He was previously the online editor of the news, politics and culture magazine Exberliner.
Follow him on Twitter: @MattUnicomb
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.