How Novak Djokovic’s detention in Australia has put the spotlight on the plight of refugees in the country

The top-ranked tennis star, who is fighting his deportation from the country, has been detained in a hotel where refugees and asylum seekers have long complained of poor conditions

FP Staff January 07, 2022 14:30:45 IST
How Novak Djokovic’s detention in Australia has put the spotlight on the plight of refugees in the country

Pro-refugee activists sit on an awning over the hotel entrance where Serbia's tennis player Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying along with detained refugees in Melbourne. AFP

Tennis star Novak Djokovic’s entry to Australia and the row that has erupted ever since, which has led him to be ‘detained’ at a hotel in Melbourne, has highlighted a different plight: those of the refugees and asylum seekers stuck for months, and sometimes, even years.

On Thursday, the Serbian tennis star was detained in a room at the Park Hotel in Carlton, Melbourne, after Australia denied him entry to the country, rejecting his case for a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine requirement.

A court will decide on whether he should be deported on Monday. The drama that has erupted in Australia over the world's number one tennis star also highlighted the country’s strict COVID-19 policies, which saw Melbourne in a lockdown for more than 250 days.

While the Park Hotel, situated near the University of Melbourne describes itself as “luxurious” and “4.5 stars”, it doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation.

According to Australia’s 9 News, the Park Hotel has been used by the government since 2020 to house detainees, many of whom are seeking visas to remain in Australia. As of date, there are about 50 refugees being held there.

How Novak Djokovics detention in Australia has put the spotlight on the plight of refugees in the country

An exterior view of the hotel where Serbia's tennis champion Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying in Melbourne on January 6, 2022. AFP

The Australian government describes the hotel and several other locations around the country as an ‘Alternative Place of Detention’.

Detainees held at the hotel have described the facility as a 'torture cell'.

“There is no fresh air, there was recently a fire, the food is not great, we do not have access to a gym, the hotel is totally locked up,” Jamal Mohamed was quoted as telling The Guardian.

Mohammad Joy Miah, another refugee stuck at the hotel told BBC, "I have not had any fresh light or fresh air from outside. My life is a room. Whatever they give us, we must eat it to stay alive. The food is totally bad."

Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar, a Kurdish immigrant, as per a BBC report, spent more than a year in immigration hotels, including two months at the Park Hotel.

He has described his room there as a "coffin". He said he spent about 23 hours a day inside the room he shared with one other person, where the window was tinted and sealed shut.

"A hotel is a place for people who want to be comfortable and enjoy their time, but when they lock the place, that place becomes a prison, not a hotel," he was quoted as saying.

Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, has reportedly lashed out against the Australian government in a news conference on Thursday, taking aim at the conditions of the hotel her son is staying in.

“I feel terrible since yesterday, the last 24 hours. They are keeping him like a prisoner. It’s just not fair. It’s not human,” she said.

“It’s just some small immigration hotel, if we can call it a hotel at all. Some bugs, it’s dirty, and the food is so terrible,” Dijana Djokovic added.

Human rights activists have seized this opportunity to highlight just how unfair Australia has been to refugees.

Sophie McNeill from Human Rights Watch tweeted, "Novak Djokovic has spent just one night in immigration detention in Australia but some have been locked up at that hotel for years on end. Australia's treatment of asylum seekers is inhumane, deeply cruel and illegal under international law."

Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Breen was quoted as telling SBS News, "This is reckless indifference to the lives [of refugees]. ... Our concern is that the rest of the refugees are not safe inside the hotel. It’s a sealed incubator, and they can’t open the windows."

He added that while Djokovic knows that he will get out, the future of the refugees remains uncertain.

How Novak Djokovics detention in Australia has put the spotlight on the plight of refugees in the country

Protesters gather outside an immigration detention hotel where Serbia's Novak Djokovic is believed to stay, in Melbourne, Australia. AP

The Park Hotel gained notoriety in December when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated. One person was hospitalised for smoke inhalation. There were no fatalities.

Earlier, in October, 21 men reportedly contracted COVID-19 in the facility, which has been the site of regular protests.

It was reported on Friday that a small group of protesters supporting Novak Djokovic were waving flags and banners outside the hotel.

About 50 protesters — a mix of tennis fans, anti-vaccine demonstrators and immigrant rights activists — congregated at the detention facility in Melbourne.

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With inputs from agencies

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