World-renowned tennis player Novak Djokovic is being held in Australian immigration custody for the third day on Saturday, after his visa canceled when he arrived in the country on Wednesday.
The athlete claimed to have received a COVID vaccination exemption before flying to Australia. But the Australian Border Force denied his entry, saying he had “failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements”.
As a result, Djokovic was detained at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, also known as an Alternative Place of Detention (APOD) for refugees and asylum seekers who notorious as a hotspot for COVID-19 infections among its longtime residents.
Many of the refugees in the hotel have been detained there for almost three years, after being denied visas to Australia indefinitely because they arrived in the country by boat.
Amid anger over the top tennis player’s COVID vaccine release and his subsequent detention, refugees and asylum seekers have found an unlikely figure to highlight their fate. They call on Djokovic to grant his celebrity status to shed light on their situation and plead for their freedom.
“It is [the] time for the world to see how we are treated, ”said Jamal, a refugee and prisoner at the Park Hotel for one year. He arrived in Australia by boat in 2013 and his status remained unresolved for more than eight years after his arrival.
Amin Afravi, another refugee detained at a separate detention center in Brisbane, said Djokovic had the opportunity to help refugees fight for their freedom.
“My message to him is to speak… and to encourage other people, other countries, his country and each of the media [outlets] to continue to speak on our behalf, ”said Amin, an Ahwazi Arab refugee from Iran.
“This is torture for us”
That was in 2013, when the Australian government first entered into a series of agreements with its neighbors in the South Pacific, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, to detain any asylum seekers who arrived by boat. The agreement also prohibits refugees from permanently resettling in Australia.
Six years since that agreement, many of those asylum seekers who were eventually officially recognized as refugees have been medically evacuated to mainland Australia and are being held to this day in detention centers across the country, including Melbourne and Brisbane.
One such refugee is Ismail Hussein, who was detained in a room at Melbourne’s Park Hotel. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he described his fate in the hotel over the past year.
“We were locked in a room. I can say 24 hours a day. 24 hours a day [in] a room that has no windows, ”he said.
The worst part, he said, is “having no freedom of movement”.
“You can see through the window. People go on with their lives… and this is torture for us. Torture to us, “he said. “You know, all we want is the same thing that normal people do. But for no reason, it was taken away for nine years.”
According to Hussein, the food is “horrible” and “mostly inedible”.
“Sometimes there [are] mowers, sometimes there [are] other insects, ”he said. “Sometimes it smells so bad. And, you know, a number of times it has given us diarrhea and stomach pain. ”
Jamal, the refugee who also lives at the Park Hotel, said the only part of the building that has an open space is the smoking area, “which is harmful to our body, so we are locked inside the walls” of the building .
“The hotel itself has smell, [sometimes] the smell gets so much worse that you can not breathe, ”he told Al Jazeera in writing. “I get [suffocated] I can not breathe. I get nightmares about this detention and security. “
Because of the “indefinite” nature of the detention, “each of us” developed “depression, anxiety, self-harm, destruction,” Jamal said, asking that Al Jazeera be identified only by his first name.
‘Uncertainty kills us’
Even before they arrive at the hotel, refugees are already being abused, according to Alison Battisson, head of Human Rights for All. She represents several refugees detained in the Park Hotel.
“[They’re] in an unmarked van with darkened windows… this is how they all arrive at the Park [Hotel]. “They would arrive without any belongings or any medication, and often without any means of communication,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The uncertainty is what kills us,” said Hussein, a resident of Park Hotel. “We do not know how long we have to wait.”
“Sometimes even I can not tell if it is a day or a night. I’m just lying on the bed. ”
In October last year, COVID tore through the hotel, infecting more than half of the refugees detained inside.
When Hussein was infected, he said it was his “happiest day for the last few years”.
“Because I thought, there’s at least one reason I can die without harming myself,” he said.
“Seriously, that’s how I hate this place, that’s how I hate myself. “All I wanted was for this pain to end and I did not want to hurt myself.”
‘Cruelty, slow death’
The suffering does not end at the Park Hotel. Nearly 60 other refugees medically evacuated to Australia with Jamal and Hussein stay in detention centers across the country.
Amin, the refugee detained in Brisbane, described to Al Jazeera his situation as “cruelty, torture to death and [a] slow death ”.
“You do not know your future, you have no idea how long you are going to stay in detention, and no one is going to answer your questions,” he explained. “You think every day: What did you do wrong?”
It is “traumatic”, he said while pleading with Djokovic for help.
However, the current outcry over Djokovic’s situation has obscured the fate of the refugees, musician and refugee lawyer Dawn Barrington said.
– Human rights for all (@ HumanRights4A) 6 January 2022
Since Thursday, when Djokovic was taken to the Park Hotel, crowds formed against his detention, Serbia’s Foreign Ministry staged a “verbal protest” and his family erupted, calling him “a prisoner” in the Australian system.
“It has such headlines with all the stations and even overseas news,” Barrington told Al Jazeera. “And yet it has never been headline news to keep people arbitrarily detained and take away all their human rights, including children, for long periods of time.”
Barrington says she has asked the Australian government what the plan is for the refugees.
Battisson, of Human Rights For All, said the Djokovic controversy scandal was the “perfect opportunity” for the Australian government to “create a much more humane immigration and detention regime”.
“One that does not cost billions of dollars every year, that keeps people in detention who are no threat to Australia, and in the case of many of the refugees actively trying to leave Australia for a safe third country.”
But for many of the refugees detained in Australian immigration detention, it is almost too late.
Hussein said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and insomnia from his long detention. He was also physically destroyed, he said.
“Now I have high blood pressure. I have diabetes, I have liver problem. There are things I have to live with for the rest of my life [that] I did not have it before I came here. “
He asked the Australian government to “please let us go, before we are done”.
“We are at the end of the line. We can no longer resist. We can not stand it anymore. We are very tired. Let us be free. ”