Djokovic Detention Draws Focus to Australia's Asylum-Seekers

There are 32 asylum-seekers sharing the hotel with Novak Djokovic

(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

Novak Djokovic spent a fourth day on Sunday among the unwilling occupants of Melbourne's Park Hotel.

The tennis superstar awaited court proceedings on Monday that will determine whether he can defend his Australian Open title or whether he will be deported — and the world has shown keen interest in his temporary accommodation.

His fellow residents in the immigration detention hotel include refugees and asylum-seekers who are challenging their own proceedings that have all lasted much longer than Djokovic's. So long in some cases they feel forgotten.

Djokovic's mere presence at the hotel, a squat and unattractive building on the leafy fringe of the city's downtown, has drawn the world's eyes to those other residents and their ongoing struggles with the Australian immigration system.

Refugee activists have been quick to capitalize on the media attention as one of the world’s most feted athletes shares the hotel and its sparse amenities with some of the world's most vulnerable and dispossessed people.

Djokovic was denied entry at the Melbourne airport late Wednesday after border officials canceled his visa for failing to meet its entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

His lawyers filed court papers Saturday challenging the deportation that show Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 last month and recovered, grounds he used in applying for a medical exemption to the country’s strict vaccination rules. A decision on his appeal is expected Monday.

Renata Voracova, a 38-year-old Czech doubles player, was detained in the same hotel over a vaccine dispute before leaving Australia on Saturday.

The Park Hotel was once a thriving tourist hotel, popular for its central location near Melbourne's network of trams and across the road from the home ground of the Carlton Australian Rules Football Club.

But for the past two years it has often been referred to as the “notorious” or “infamous” Park Hotel. At the outbreak of the pandemic it was a quarantine hotel for Australians returning from overseas and reportedly a source of a delta-variant outbreak that swept Melbourne and forced the city into months of lockdown while claiming hundreds of lives.

More recently it has been home to travelers of a different kind: refugees and asylum-seekers who have been transferred for medical reasons from Australia’s off-shore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru in the Pacific.

There are 32 asylum-seekers sharing the hotel with Djokovic. Among them is Mehdi Ali of Iran who was 15 when he made the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. He had spent the past nine years in an off-shore processing facility for asylum-seekers and refugees, and was recently moved to the Park Hotel, where armed police guard the entrance and residents cannot leave.

Mehdi says the hotel is “like a jail” with its lengthy confinement, lack of fresh air and poor food.

In October, a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than half of the hotel’s then 46 residents. In December, small fires broke out on one floor, residents were evacuated and one person was treated for smoke inhalation. Damage caused by the fires affected residents' access to outdoor exercise areas, and asylum-seekers frequently complain they are confined to their rooms.

Refugee advocates regularly protest outside the hotel, mostly in small numbers and unnoticed by passersby. Djokovic’s sudden arrival has energized the protesters as they seek to draw global attention to the asylum-seekers and their treatment in Australia.

An Amnesty International campaign manager, Shankar Kasynathan, was among several groups protesting outside the Park Hotel on Friday. One large group of Serbian-Australians protested Djokovic’s detention while another smaller group of protesters celebrated his opposition to vaccine mandates.

“The world is watching at this point because we have one of the world’s most celebrated athletes ... under the same roof as the world’s most vulnerable people, namely refugees,” Kasynathan said.

“We hope that Novak Djokovic will use his influence, his support base to potentially put pressure on (Home Affairs Minister) Karen Andrews and the Australian government to end this senseless cruelty,” he added.

Australia first introduced offshore processing at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in 2001 as part of its “Pacific Solution” to asylum-seekers and refugees attempting to reach Australia by boat, often with the help of traffickers. Offshore processing was suspended in 2008 but resumed in August 2012.

Since July 2013, successive Australian governments have said no refugees will be resettled in Australia from Nauru or Manus Island. By mid-2021, about 1,000 refugees from the offshore centers had been resettled in other countries, including more than 900 in the United States.

Many in the offshore centers have been transferred back to Australia for medical reasons and have been detained at places like the Park Hotel.

Djokovic will be granted his freedom from the hotel on Monday one way or another. If his legal challenge to the cancellation of his visa is successful he will be able to defend his Australian Open title next month. If not, he will have to return home.

For others at the Park Hotel there will be no such choice. Their wait will continue.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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