Djokovic row highlights plight of asylum seekers in Australia

Outside Djokovic ‘hotel’, Serbian supporters rub shoulders with refugee advocates.

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Pro-refugee protesters demonstrate at the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

As rain pelts the crowd outside Novak Djokovic’s detention centre in Melbourne, shouts of “free Novak” alternate with “free refugees” as fans stand alongside activists and anti-vaccine protesters.

The vaccine-sceptical tennis ace was placed in the centre earlier this week, his visa revoked for failing to meet Australia’s tough pandemic entry restrictions.

In the crowd of about 50 people that gathered for a second day of protest on Friday, some displayed posters of the nine-time Australian Open champion while others held anti-vaccine placards.

A group called Grandmothers for Refugees voiced support for people detained by the government.

Draped in flags and playing nationalistic songs, some Serbians in the crowd celebrated Orthodox Christmas Day at the protest.

It is unclear how long Djokovic – who has declared himself against mandatory vaccination and was given a medical exemption – will be held at the Melbourne facility.

A court is set to hear his legal challenge against his visa cancellation on Monday.

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Supporters of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic rally outside the Park Hotel [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

The Park Hotel

Just four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the luxurious city hotels where most of the other players at the Australian Open are staying, the Park Hotel, a grey five-storey building with locked windows in an inner-city suburb, is officially known as an “alternative place of detention”.

Inside on the second floor are around 30 men from several countries who were evacuated for medical treatment in 2020 from Australian detention centres in the impoverished South Pacific island nations Papua New Guinea and Nauru, now trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system.

Detainees cannot leave and nobody is allowed in or out except staff.

The building was graffitied with the slogan “free them all” by refugee supporters on Thursday night, when two people were arrested as police tried to clear the area.

A detainee stuck up a sign reading “I am looking for my freedom” on one of the windows.

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Signs hang in the windows of the Park Hotel [Sandra Sanders/Reuters]

The facility gained notoriety last year when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.

“We are stuck in our room. There is no fresh air. We don’t have any place for training. There is no gym here. It’s very hard,” said Hossein Latifi, a 32-year-old Iranian who was detained on Nauru in 2013.

For decades, Australia has had a mandatory detention policy for anyone arriving without a visa, and to deter people from arriving by boat, it set up offshore detention centres in Nauru and on PNG’s Manus Island.

Manus was shut in 2016 after being deemed illegal, while the Nauru centre remains open.

In response to critics, the government in 2019 began allowing critically ill refugees to be temporarily transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

Latifi was brought to Australia in 2020 and initially held in another facility before he was moved to the Park Hotel four months ago. He said he does not know how long he will be held there or where he might go next.

“We are refugees, we are innocent people – we’ve not committed any crime. They just keep me like hostage here,” Latifi told Reuters news agency by phone from his room, where he videoed a group of around 100 people across the street calling for Djokovic and the refugees to be freed.

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Pro-refugee protesters demonstrate at the Park Hotel [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Some of the group of asylum seekers have been held at the hotel for almost two years, with several complaining about conditions, including poor catering.

“It’s such low quality and we’ve also been served with maggots and mould in our bread,” said Adnan Choopani, another Iranian who was first detained nine years ago when he was 15.

The hotel is also being used to quarantine travellers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Choopani and Latifi both wished Djokovic well, although Latifi noted the tennis superstar was facing being held for “just a few days”, rather than nine years.

Choopani said he drew some strength from the spotlight the famous new resident had placed on the hotel.

“I don’t wish Australian detention for nobody,” Choopani said. “Novak, you are not alone. You have lots of supporters, we love you, we want to see you succeed … we wish you all luck and wish you freedom, like how we wish for ourselves.”

Djokovic’s detention has sparked international scrutiny, with the Serbian government demanding explanations.

“Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but was treated that way by the Australian authorities which causes an understandable indignation of his fans and citizens of Serbia,” a foreign ministry statement said.

The country’s president, prime minister and foreign minister have issued a series of nationalist-tinged remarks brimming with anger at the treatment of the national hero.

In fiery remarks at a Belgrade rally, his father Srdjan Djokovic told a crowd in his son was the victim of a “political witch hunt” and “corona fascism”.

His mother Djina Djokovic told reporters at the rally: “They are keeping him as a prisoner. It is just not fair. It is not human.”

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The hotel is also being used to quarantine travellers who have tested positive for COVID-19 [Sandra Sanders/Reuters]

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended revoking Djokovic’s visa.

“Rules are rules and there are no special cases,” he said.

Many Australians, who have endured nearly two years of travel bans and lockdowns, were outraged when they learned the player was given a vaccine exemption.

Tennis players seemed divided, but some rallied around Novak.

“Look, I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mum’s health, but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” said Australian star Nick Kyrgios.

“This is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human,” he said on social media.

Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, said he felt sorry for Djokovic but added the Serb could be playing “without a problem” if he had wanted to.

“I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem,” said Nadal.

“He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences. Of course, I don’t like the situation that is happening. In some way, I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies