Novak Djokovic’s enforced stay at a quasi-detention facility in Melbourne was unusual not only because he is the world’s top men’s tennis player, but also in that he was released after just four days.
For the more than 30 asylum seekers who languish indefinitely at the Park Hotel, a secure site known as the “Park prison”, there is no such escape.
The Serbian tennis star inadvertently drew attention to their plight last week when the cancellation of the entry visa allowing him to defend his Australian Open title resulted in a short stay at the contentious facility.
Soon, the supporters of refugees who keep a vigil outside the front gate had been joined by dozens of irate Djokovic fans, as well as anti-vaccination protesters drawn by the vaccine-sceptic tennis star’s predicament.
“It’s incredible that [the asylum seekers] have been locked up for the past two years right in the heart of Melbourne, and it’s taken a tennis player controversy to shine light on the situation,” said Claire Gomez, a nurse who was showing support for the detainees.
Djokovic was switched to more salubrious accommodation after a judge ruled his visa cancellation had been unreasonable, though he remains under threat of expulsion owing to his unvaccinated status and errors in his immigration documents. But authorities’ efforts to deport the player have drawn intense scrutiny to Australia’s strict border policies.
Djokovic’s former neighbours remain behind the walls of a facility that has made headlines around the world for the poor quality of its food, including maggots in some meals, and the mental and physical strain suffered by the migrants. Most are awaiting transit to countries such as Canada and the US but remain stuck in asylum limbo.
Mehdi Ali was moved into the Park Hotel from Nauru, the Pacific island where hundreds of asylum seekers trying to enter Australia have been held in grim detention camp dubbed “island prisons”, two months after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He has been enmeshed 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.
His mental health had suffered owing to a lack of certainty about when his incarceration will end — compounded by the torment of being able to watch ordinary citizens going about their business through the window.
“In prison, they take away your life but you cannot see other people’s lives,” he said by phone from inside the hotel. “But I’m in the middle of the city and I cannot leave. It’s like being hungry and watching someone eat in front of you.”
Craig Foster, the footballer turned human rights advocate, welcomed how Djokovic’s ordeal had drawn worldwide attention to Australia’s hardline border regime. The tennis player, one of the world’s highest 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 detainees diminished Australia’s standing in the world, especially when Canberra sought to pressure other countries accused of human rights abuses. The immigration policies pursued by successive Australian governments were “a gargantuan international embarrassment” that struck at the heart of the national identity, he said.
“There is a human cost to this immense political cynicism,” Foster added. “They are the political pawns on the chessboard of an interminable game.”
Australia operates offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for “boat people” who have been intercepted trying to reach the country. There were an additional 1,459 people in detention centres and other facilities within Australia as of September last year, according to government data.
Kim Matousek, a protester outside the “Park prison”, argued that the detention policies had also become a huge cost to the Australian taxpayer. “The financial aspect of it is ludicrous,” she added. “It would be cheaper to let them go.”
A Refugee Council of Australia report published in 2019 put the cost of the government’s asylum policies at A$9.6bn (US$7bn).
A spokesperson for the Australian Border Force urged migrants such as those in the Park Hotel to seek migration options in other countries, adding that the force “remained committed to health and welfare of detainees”.
She added: “Australia’s border protection policies remain steadfast; persons who travel to Australia illegally by boat will not permanently settle here. Temporary transfer to Australia to receive medical treatment is not a pathway to settlement.”
Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute think-tank, said the “theatrics” of Australia’s act-tough border controls clashed with the country’s reliance and openness to legal migration.
“It’s hard to separate that attitude on border security from the fact we live in one of the highest migrant-per-capita places in the world,” he said.
Only the US and UK resettle more refugees per capita than Australia, according to the government.
The latest data from Australia’s statistic’s bureau showed there were 7.6m migrants living in the country, with almost 30 per cent of the population born overseas. But the coronavirus pandemic resulted in migration numbers turning negative for the first time since 1946, with immigration falling sharply last year.
Lemahieu said that while harsh border security was politically popular, the “flip side of the coin” was that hundreds of thousands of legal migrants, mostly from China, India and the UK, were welcomed annually through the front door.
That makes the Park Hotel situation more difficult for the government to justify. “This is highlighting some uncomfortable questions as to whether these people do represent a risk to us or whether they are sacrificial lambs for border security policies,” he said.
Mehdi, now 24, said he could not regret travelling to Australia as it was never his choice to do so, but he does mourn the loss of a youth wasted in arbitrary detention.
“Sometimes I wish I died in the ocean,” he said.