Novak Djokovic's visa debacle throws spotlight on plight of detained asylum seekers

Djokovic has been taken to the Park Hotel in Carlton, an "alternative place of detention" where detainees have reported being given meals with maggots and mould to eat in recent times.

A man looks out after placing a banner in the window of his room at Melbourne's Park Hotel, where tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic is also being detained.

A man looks out after placing a banner in the window of his room at Melbourne's Park Hotel, where tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic is also being detained. Source: AAP/Joel Carrett

As men's tennis world number one Novak Djokovic spends his first night in immigration detention in Melbourne, human rights and refugee activists are hoping the global media attention will bring scrutiny to Australia’s immigration policies.

Djokovic was taken on Thursday to the Park Hotel in Carlton, an "alternative place of detention" housing dozens of asylum seekers, after the federal government sensationally cancelled his visa for failing "to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia".

A fire has broken out in the Park Hotel in recent weeks and detainees . It's also been the site of a COVID-19 outbreak, where half of the detainees and around 20 staff became infected with coronavirus.

Djokovic's situation, which his family members have likened to a prison stint, has garnered international media attention.

Mehdi Ali, a detainee at the Park Hotel, took to Twitter on Thursday to shed light on what the media focus had been like. 

“It's so sad that so many journalists contacted me yesterday to ask me about Djokovic. I've been in a cage for 9 years, I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is that … pretending to care by asking me how I am and then straight away asking questions about Djokovic,” he posted.

Mr Ali told SBS News he had not seen Djokovic and was disappointed it took this series of events for more people to pay attention to Australia's immigration policies.

“I have been asking the guards, I haven't seen him personally … I hope he won't be here, as I hope my worst enemy won't be here, because the circumstances are cruel and inhumane and I wouldn't wish that for no one - especially not Djokovic,” he said.

Pictures posted to social media on Thursday showed crowds of people protesting outside the Park Hotel to draw attention to the men inside, some of whom have been in Australia's immigration detention system for nearly a decade.

Asked on the ABC on Friday morning about what message the situation sends to the world about how Australia treats asylum seekers, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said all people in immigration detention are treated “equitably”.

“People who are in immigration detention, whether it be in a hotel in Melbourne or whether it be elsewhere in Australia, those people are there because they don't have a valid visa or they are illegally here in Australia for maybe a number of reasons,” she said.

“For those people who are protesting, all I can say is people in Australia do have the right to voice their opinions and to protest, they just need to do that lawfully.”

Supporters of asylum seekers protest outside Melbourne's Park Hotel on 6 January, 2022.
Protesters outside Melbourne's Park Hotel, where a number of asylum seekers are being held. Source: AAP/James Ross

Alison Battisson, a lawyer at Human Rights For All, said Djokivic's situation is a "very unfortunate" one "faced by many people who arrive in Australia". 

“Novak Djokovic has the resources of the world behind him, so you can imagine if someone like him can be caught up in this sort of brutal regime, that people who arrive seeking asylum at the airport or via boat are really faced with this impenetrable system of constant changing rules and regulations,” Ms Battisson said.

Refugee advocate Jane Salmon said in a statement: "These [asylum seekers] were held by Australia as maritime arrivals for seeking asylum. They have been held nine years. Perhaps the empathy of a man of Novak's profile will help them obtain freedom."

Djokovic is set to remain in visa limbo until at least Monday as he fights to stave off deportation before the Australian Open.

The nine-time champion is challenging Australia's decision to cancel his visa, applying for a judicial review. He is also seeking to have officials barred from deporting him in the meantime.

The Serbian star claimed on Tuesday he had an exemption against vaccination allowing him to travel to Australia, but it appears he only had the exemption provided by Tennis Australia to participate in the competition.

Additional reporting by Essam Al-Ghalib, Akash Arora, AAP.

4 min read
Published 6 January 2022 at 4:46pm
By Ellie Mitchell, Evan Young
Source: SBS News