Djokovic’s stay at Park Hotel highlights plight of asylum seekers in Australia
MELBOURNE, Australia – People who demonstrated outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne on Saturday were a disparate group.
Some were Australian-Serbs and anti-vaccine activists, there to support Novak Djokovic, the tennis superstar who is in quarantine there as he challenges Australia’s decision to deny him entry on issues on a Covid-19 vaccine exemption.
A separate group of protesters held placards proclaiming “Refugees Welcome” and “Nine Years Too Long”. They were drawing attention to a very different cause: the welfare of some 30 asylum seekers detained at the Park Hotel much longer than Australian Open champion Mr Djokovic.
Since December 2020, the Australian Border Force has used the hotel to house refugees who had been detained for years in remote Pacific islands, as part of Australia’s much-criticized offshore detention policy for asylum seekers who are trying to reach the country by boat. Those from the Park Hotel were taken to Australia for treatment, but they cannot leave the hotel for any other reason and they do not know how long they will stay there.
For the activists, the detention of Mr. Djokovic in the same hotel was an opportunity to inform the world about the plight of asylum seekers.
“Djokovic’s detention highlights Australia’s cruel and inhumane system of compulsory detention,” said Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch.
Mr Djokovic’s family and the government of his country, Serbia, have denounced the conditions under which they say he is being held at the Park Hotel, a simple four-story establishment on the outskirts of Melbourne’s central business district. His family say Mr. Djokovic was subjected to bugs in his room and to foul food. The Serbian government demanded better housing.
Asylum seekers at the hotel have lodged similar complaints. Right after Christmas, some posted pictures of mold and maggots food they said they got in their room. Earlier in December, some said after a fire broke out at the hotel, they were confined to the lobby and not allowed out.
Several asylum seekers said their bedroom windows had been screwed down, denying them access to fresh air. In October and November, a coronavirus epidemic swept through their ranks. At one point, 22 of the 46 asylum seekers who were then detained at the hotel had the Covid.
An Australian Border Force statement said detainees in immigration hotels had “access to dedicated indoor and outdoor exercise and activity areas,” adequate food, “clean and comfortable dormitories. And other amenities.
The clash between Novak Djokovic and Australia
Alison Battisson, a human rights lawyer who represents some of the asylum seekers in the hotel, said Australia’s detention system was deliberately meant to “make conditions so horrible that you choose to go back to where you came from. to suffer the prejudice “.
“This is where Mr Djokovic found himself – this deterrence policy nightmare,” Battisson said.
Most of the asylum seekers at the hotel were taken to Australia in 2019. They had previously been held in offshore processing centers in the Pacific island nation of Nauru or on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Guinea, and were taken to Australia as part of a short lifespan. program for inmates requiring medical attention.
They arrived desperate for a reprieve from the indefinite detention and miserable conditions they had endured, then found themselves confined to a building where they could see normal Australian life behind their windows, just out of reach.
Ms Battisson said that if Mr Djokovic had been treated like his clients, he would have been handcuffed and transported to the hotel in a van with black tinted windows. Her access to vitamins and medications would be decided by the nurse on duty, if she was on duty. He would not be allowed to access anything that authorities said could be used for self-harm, she said – “for example, not even a jump rope to help him stay in shape.” .
And while Mr. Djokovic’s stay will be temporary, asylum seekers locked inside have no idea how long they will be held.
“We cannot leave the hotel,” said Mehdi Ali, a 24-year-old refugee from Iran. “We are surrounded by walls.
Mr. Ali was young when he fled Iran, where he says he was persecuted as a member of the Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority. At 15, he was part of a group of asylum seekers whose boat was apprehended as they tried to reach Australia.
He spent years in a host of detention centers before arriving at the Park Hotel a few months ago. He says he wasted nine years of his youth because of Australia’s immigration policy – waiting for the rain on the island of Nauru to be able to take a shower; participate in hunger strikes; trying to treat the rats in his room like pets.
Since the announcement of Mr. Djokovic’s detention at the Park Hotel, he has received a flood of messages from strangers who had just learned of his situation, Ali said.
“I’m kind of excited that people are getting to know our situation,” he said. “But I’m also disappointed and sad, because why didn’t they know we had been in detention for over eight years?”
Shankar Kasynathan, an Amnesty International human rights activist, was one of a dozen refugee advocates who demonstrated outside the hotel on Saturday morning.
“It’s been nine years, and it’s too long,” he said. “We call on Novak to use his influence, base of support and platform to call this out and help us and Australia end this cruelty.”
He added that the protesters he was with tried to stay separated from those demonstrating on behalf of Mr. Djokovic or against vaccination warrants. Pro-asylum and anti-vaccine protesters engaged in a verbal confrontation which was interrupted by police.
In the afternoon, an anti-vaccine protest that started in Melbourne’s central business district made its way to the hotel. About 50 police officers surrounded 100 demonstrators who drummed, whistled and chanted “Novak, Novak”. Some wore Serbian flags as capes and danced to music.
Some Djokovic supporters appeared to embrace the refugee cause, sometimes chanting “freedom for all” as asylum seekers watched from their windows.
Many Melbourne residents who pulled up outside the hotel, which is on a busy tram line, said they had only just realized that asylum seekers were being held there.
“I have crossed this street thousands of times and no known refugees have ever been detained here,” said Bobby Tomasevic, 55, who had come down in the hope of seeing Mr. Djokovic. “It’s shocking.”
Before being used to detain asylum seekers, the Park Hotel – under its old name, Rydges – had been used as a Covid quarantine center, with poor results. It was an epicenter of the second wave of Covid to hit Melbourne, which led to a long lockdown of the city.
Australia’s offshore detention policy has been criticized at home and abroad for years. According to Australian government statistics, in September, 117 asylum seekers had been in detention for five years or more, and several for more than 10 years. That number has declined in recent years, as dozens of refugees have settled in the United States after being checked by American authorities, as part of a deal negotiated under President Barack Obama’s administration.
But the process has been slow and the costs of the program have been considerable. According to the Home Office, hotel detention in Melbourne costs A $ 471,493 per year per inmate, or about $ 338,600, which is over $ 900 per night.