The Novak Djokovic Saga Puts Australia’s Awful Detention System on the Global Stage

djokovic update

Serbian tennis legend Novak Djokovic has been the biggest story of the past week, even amongst those who couldn’t tell the difference between a forehand and a backhand.

After flying into the country for the Australian Open, with assurances that his visa was valid, the world number one was detained at the airport before being told on Thursday last week that his visa had been cancelled for not providing proper medical exemption documentation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man who has never turned down an available bandwagon if he can smell votes in it, hopped on Twitter to share the ‘win’ and burnish his ‘tough on borders’ stance.

“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant,” he tweeted.

Of course, rules are rules, and when a judge overturned the decision, saying that the medical exemption and the necessary paperwork were, in fact, all in order and always had been.

The judge in the case asked: “What more could this man have done?”

“Here, a professor and an eminently qualified physician have produced and provided to the applicant a medical exemption,” he said.

“Further to that, that medical exemption and the basis on which it was given, was separately given by a further independent expert specialist panel established by the Victorian state government.”

Djokovic walked on to Centre Court at Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday afternoon for a practice session and, if all goes according to plan, he could very well be playing in the men’s final on January 30, fighting for his 21st grand slam title.

It’s not entirely smooth sailing, however, as the government could still deport him. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is expected to make a decision at any moment as to whether the world’s most successful tennis player will be locked out of the country or be allowed to play, possibly vindicating anti-vaxxers everywhere and making Morrison, once again, look absolutely incompetent.

But behind all this drama and high-level international and domestic politicking, another kind of tragedy has played out: that of the migrants and asylum seekers housed in the same facilities Djokovic was detained in for the previous few days.

Some of those residing in the Park Hotel facilities in Melbourne have been there for over nine years, making them the enduring legacy of Morrison’s time in the role of Immigration Minister and his militant Operation Sovereign Borders programme which saw a zero-tolerance approach to asylum seekers reaching the country by boat.

Australia’s detention system is complex and highly secretive. Media are frequently banned from visiting the offshore detention facilities of Manus Island and Nauru. To paraphrase Morrison’s own government’s approach to national security and surveillance: if they’ve got nothing to hide, what do they fear will be seen?

It’s no secret however that Australia’s detention facilities have appalling conditions, with some people fleeing conflict and terror in their own home countries being forced to languish in them for years on end while their legal claims move at the pace of snails. It’s not really something you see on the postcard image of the country abroad.

However, sending the world tennis number one to an on-shore detention hotel has placed a big ol’ spotlight on the system that the world is currently very interested in looking at. This piece from The New York Times details the legacy of Australia’s cooked immigration system while this piece from London outfit Novara Media proclaims the Djokovic saga has “exposed Australia’s brutal border regime.”

Medhi Ali was just 15 when he came alone to Australia by boat. He was picked up and taken to Nauru off-shore processing facility where he says he saw people set themselves on fire, take their own lives, and children without any protection living in tents. He’s now 24 and currently still residing in the same Park Hotel facility where Djokovic was detained.

His story, and many others like him, thankfully, has grabbed the attention of the global and domestic media, however, refugees say that they fear once the cameras leave and the hype dies down, they will once again be forgotten about.

The Refugee Council of Australia says that the average length of stay in Australian detention for asylum seekers is 689 days. Djokovic spent just five. By contrast, the average length of stay in immigration detention in the US is just 55 days. In Canada, it’s 14.

While Australia likes to keep a close lid on what really goes on in its immigration detention system, the Djokovic case has blown that lid clean off. UN Special Rapporteur for Migration, Felipe Gonzalez said on Twitter that “Novak Djokovic, who is neither a migrant or an asylum-seeker, got what human rights organizations have repeatedly asked Governments for migrants and asylum-seekers: that deportations should be suspended until a judicial decision is issued.”

The Refugee Council of Australia has reminded us that “Indefinite, arbitrary detention is a violation of international human rights law, yet Australia continues this practice without serious repercussion”.

“It is disappointing that it has taken the detention of a tennis player to highlight Australia’s ongoing practice of mandatory detention on the world stage,” CEO Paul Power wrote in a statement.

Djokovic’s treatment also highlights the fact that many of these trapped in prisons both onshore and offshore in our country could easily have their arbitrary detention suspended with the flick of a pen from a judge or an immigration official. It’s clearly not that hard, as has been demonstrated.

While those still stuck at Park Hotel hope that Djokovic will stand up for their cause and speak to their suffering, further bringing international pressure on the country to stop this barbaric practice, it remains to be seen whether anyone in power will listen. With an election looming and a PM determined to play hardline rhetoric for political point-scoring, we wouldn’t hold our breath. While nothing continues to be done, the 1,459 still trapped continue to suffer.

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