Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

Novak Djokovic’s forced stay at a quasi-detention facility in Melbourne was unusual, not only because he is the world’s leading male tennis player, but also because he was released after just four days.

For the more than 30 asylum seekers who are languishing indefinitely at the Park Hotel, a safe haven known as the “Park Prison”, there is no such escape.

The Serbian tennis star accidentally drew attention to their fate last week when the cancellation of the entry visa allowing him to defend his Australian Open title led to a short stay at the controversial facility.

Dozens of angry Djokovic supporters were soon joined by supporters of refugees guarding outside the front gate, as well as anti-vaccination protesters marching through the vaccine skeptics tennis star’s predicament.

“It’s incredible [the asylum seekers] has been locked up in the heart of Melbourne for the past two years, and it took a tennis player controversy to shed light on the situation, ”said Claire Gomez, a nurse who showed support for the detainees.

Djokovic was transferred to more wholesome accommodation after a judge ruled that his visa should be canceled was unreasonable, although he remains under threat of eviction due to his unvaccinated status and errors in his immigration documents. But authorities’ attempts to deport the player have attracted intense investigation into Australia’s strict border policies.

Serbian Djokovic supporters join anti-vaccination protesters along with supporters of refugees outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne
Serbian Djokovic supporters join anti-vaccination protesters along with supporters of refugees outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne © William West / AFP / Getty

Djokovic’s former neighbors remain behind the walls of a facility that has made headlines worldwide for the poor quality of its food, including maggots in some meals, and the mental and physical stress the migrants suffered. Most are waiting for transportation to countries like Canada and the USA but remain stuck in asylum limbo.

Mehdi Ali was moved to the Park Hotel from Nauru, the Pacific island, where hundreds of asylum seekers trying to enter Australia were detained in the grim detention camp called. “island prisons”, two months after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He has been trapped in the Australian asylum system for almost a decade, after his family in Iran put him on a boat to Australia when he was 15 years old.

His mental health has suffered as a result of a lack of certainty about when his confinement will end – exacerbated by the torment of being able to watch ordinary citizens go through the window with their business.

“In prison, they take away your life, but you can not see other people’s lives,” he said by telephone from inside the hotel. “But I’m in the middle of the city and I can not leave. It’s like being hungry and watching someone eat in front of you. ”

Craig Foster, the footballer who became a human rights lawyer, welcomed how Djokovic’s trial worldwide drew attention to Australia’s tough border regime. The tennis player, one of the world’s paid athletes with a global profile, now has a unique opportunity to share his experience and raise awareness about the issue, he said.

Foster argued that the harsh treatment of prisoners diminished Australia’s prestige in the world, especially when Canberra tried to pressure on other countries accused of human rights violations. The immigration policy pursued by successive Australian governments was “a huge international embarrassment” that hit the core of the national identity, he said.

“There is a human cost to this tremendous political cynicism,” Foster added. “They are the political pawns on the chessboard of an endless game.”

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic was encouraged by fighters to describe his treatment in detention © Mike Frey / AFP / Getty

Australia operates foreign detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for “boot people”Who were intercepted to try to reach the country. There were an additional 1,459 people in detention centers and other facilities in Australia as of September last year, according to government data.

Kim Matousek, a protester outside the “Park Prison”, argued that the detention policy had also become a huge cost to the Australian taxpayer. “The financial aspect of it is ridiculous,” she added. “It would be cheaper to let them go.”

A refugee council from Australia report published in 2019 set the cost of the government’s asylum policies at A $ 9.6 billion (US $ 7 billion).

An Australian Border Patrol spokesman urged migrants such as those at the Park Hotel to seek migration options in other countries, adding that the force “remained committed to the health and well-being of detainees”.

She added: “Australia’s border protection policy remains firm; persons traveling illegally by boat to Australia will not settle here permanently. “Temporary transfer to Australia to receive medical treatment is not a way to settle.”

People protest outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne
Australian Border Guard says it is ‘committed to the health and well-being of detainees’ © Joel Carrett / Reuters

Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute think tank, said the “theaters” of Australia’s active border control clashed with the country’s dependence and openness to legal migration.

“It’s hard to separate that attitude about border security from the fact that we live in one of the highest migrants-per-capita places in the world,” he said.

Only the US and UK relocate more refugees per capita than Australia, according to the government.

The latest data from Australia’s Statistics Bureau showed that there are 7.6 million migrants living in the country, with almost 30 per cent of the population being born overseas. But the coronavirus pandemic led to migration numbers that become negative for the first time since 1946, with immigration declining sharply last year.

Lemahieu said that while tough border security was politically popular, was the “reverse side of the coin” that hundreds of thousands of legal migrants, mostly from China, India and the UK, were welcomed through the front door every year.

This makes the Park Hotel situation more difficult for the government to justify. “It highlights some awkward questions about whether these people pose a risk to us and whether they are sacrificial lambs for border security policies,” he said.

Mehdi, now 24, said he could not regret traveling to Australia as it was never his choice to do so, but he did mourn the loss of a youth who was wasted in arbitrary detention.

“Sometimes I wish I had died in the sea,” he said.

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