Earlier this month, Novak Djokovic descended onto Australian shores hopeful of winning his 21st grand slam tennis tournament. He ended up detained within the walls of Park Hotel in Melbourne alongside approximately 30 refugees and asylum seekers, including Salah Mustafa, who arrived in Australia as a 14-year-old having fled life-threatening circumstances in Iraq. Today, Djokovic is safely back in his homeland. Rumours abound that he is apparently considering legal action against the Australian Government surrounding his days-long treatment in Australia. Salah is now 23, has been locked away in detention for 8 years, and has missed out on much education, opportunity, and much of his youth.
During the subsequent fallout since Djokovic’s arrival, including two short detention periods and two highly publicised court hearings (one won by Djokovic and one lost, facilitating his eventual deportation), many commentators internationally and nationally have taken aim at Australia’s immigration policies, scathing in their judgments of such. Crowds of protestors loyally gathered outside Park Hotel to make their displeasure for the treatment of their sporting hero known. Djokovic has not escaped criticism for his actions and views (a matter for another article) and many have said that Australia’s reputation has been tainted because of the treatment of the current world number 1 ranked men’s tennis player.
The latter may be so, but what an indictment on our global community that would be if that’s the case. That Australia’s loss in reputation surrounding our country’s cruel and capricious immigration policies and practices, was triggered not by Australia’s indefinite detention of more than 270 refugees and asylum seekers onshore and offshore, some for in excess of 9 years, but instead by its treatment of a wealthy, well-resourced man seeking entry to make several more millions of dollars, who was held in detention for a matter of days, and who had almost immediate access to top-notch lawyers and the Australian court system to facilitate advocacy on his behalf.
“It’s so sad,” noted Mehdi Ali, a refugee detained in the same hotel Djokovic was held at: “so many journalists contacted me … to ask about Djokovic. I’ve been in a cage for nine years. I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is that.”
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.
— Mehdi Ali (@MehdiAli98) January 6, 2022
To be clear – scathing judgments on Australia’s treatment of detainees and its immigration policies, in general, are warranted. Australia’s disrespect of international humanitarian law is palpable, cruel, and astounding.
Even today around 70 asylum seekers brought to Australian shores under the now-defunct Medevac legislation are left in immigration detention, including the approximately 33 men detained in the same Park Hotel which hosted Djokovic. Offshore, roughly 224 asylum seekers remain, languishing in poor conditions, in Papua New Guinea, and on Nauru. Numbers in detention have been as high as 10,201 at some points within the past decade.
The Australian Government has had to be taken to court multiple times over the course of the last decade by firms and NGOs fighting to secure basic human rights for detainees and stubbornly spends millions of taxpayer dollars to appeal decisions that force the Government to respect the rights of those detained. As recently as late December 2021, photos and reports surfaced of detainees being served maggot and mould-infested food in the very same hotel Djokovic was “accommodated” in. Back in 2015, Guardian Australia reported human teeth were found in a meal served to an asylum seeker in the Manus Island detention centre. The United Nations has been consistently and rightfully critical of Australia’s immigration detention regime.
In response to these critical issues and events, the Australian Government has reacted with defiance – reinforcing the “god-like powers” the Minister for Immigration has under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), which permit the minister to cancel a visa on, essentially, a whim, regardless as to why an official or a court has granted or reimposed it and indeed just last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison incorrectly claimed that those held in immigration detention were not refugees when most of those currently held in Park Hotel are indeed recognised refugees. Days later he would attempt to deny misleading the public with his comments, while amending his words on the topic and refusing to apologise. His government continues to claim that those arriving by boat are doing so illegally, in constant and stark contrast to international law, including the Refugees Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) which is quite clear in stating that seeking asylum is not illegal.
In any event, now that the international tennis star and now a symbol for the anti-vax community (whether intended or not) Djokovic has departed, so has the spotlight on this important issue. A spotlight that is critically needed to assist those still held in indefinite detention, on the heels of media attention which is years overdue.
Djokovic lost the opportunity to pick up another world title and another prize packet worth millions of dollars. Whether this lost opportunity was deserved or not is a matter for another article. The refugees and asylum seekers who are indefinitely detained, however, continue to lose their health, their youths, their fundamental rights, and freedoms, and sometimes their lives. Refugee Reza Barati was murdered at the Manus Island detention centre in 2014 and a number of other refugees and asylum seekers have died by suicide or from the effects of untreated illness and neglect. It remains to be seen whether the impacts of Australia’s cruel immigration policy on a wealthy international star might bring change for the hundreds of detainees who still languish in detention, without so much fanfare.
Ph via Twitter.
*Fabi Fugazza is an Australian lawyer, human rights academic, and chief operating officer at CILD.