Novak Djokovic’s fans are fighting to get him out of his hotel. Inside, refugees wonder if they’ll ever leave

Free money [sic], “Read a handwritten banner of a protester hanging on a tennis racket.” Let Novak play.”

On Thursday, Morrison told reporters that Tennis Australia had been notified in a letter dating back to November 2021 that unvaccinated players with recent Covid-19 infection would not be allowed into the country based on public health guidelines.

Djokovic’s legal team won an urgent injunction against the decision, but it remains unclear whether the Australian Open men’s singles champion will be able to compete in the tournament starting on January 17.

Court documents released by the Australian Federal Circuit on Saturday show that Djokovic was granted a competition medical exemption after he tested positive for Covid-19 in December. His lawyers appealed the visa revocation and were unwilling to comment before Monday’s court hearing.
The Djokovic case has gone far beyond the issue of the individual visa. It has drawn anger from people who feel the rich and powerful are getting an easy ride when it comes to Australia’s strict Covid-19 rules, which have separated families for years – but it’s also at anti-vaccination opponents who believe the coronavirus restrictions encroach on their civil liberties. This has raised concerns from the Serbian-Australian community, with some saying Djokovic is being unfairly targeted.

But Djokovic’s situation has also highlighted the plight of asylum seekers in Australia. While the tennis star will eventually be allowed to play in the tournament or forced to leave the country, other detainees have been locked up in the same facility for years – and face indefinite detention under Australia’s strict immigration rules.

Anger spread

As dozens of protesters from different groups of the political spectrum gathered outside the Park Hotel on Friday, one thing was left to them: the push for freedom.

Some of them were from Serbian cultural groups, singing and waving the Balkan country’s flag, who considered Djokovic’s arrest a major injustice against one of the world’s biggest sports stars.

“I don’t understand why he should be stuck in a detention center,” said 17-year-old Australian-Serbian and rookie tennis player, who did not give her last name. “Everyone has the freedom to choose, whether or not they are vaccinated.”

Djokovic, who is linked with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 20 men’s Grand Slam singles titles, has not publicly disclosed the vaccination status but voiced his opposition to Covid-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates in April 2020.

General view of the government detention center, Park Hotel.

Others have used Djokovic’s ordeal as an opportunity to criticize how vaccine mandates have curtailed civil liberties.

A woman – who gave her name only as Matti for privacy reasons – said that if Djokovic came home, she would not watch the Australian Open.

“I’ve been going every year — I can’t this year because of vaccine mandates,” said Mattie, who added that she is not immune.

Another masked man, who refused to speak to CNN, carried a sign declaring Djokovic a “hostage of the communist state.”

But others have focused their attention on the approximately 30 refugees who are being held at the hotel.

Authorities detain another first-class tennis player over visa issues ahead of the Australian Open

The hotel was previously used by the Australian government as a Covid-19 quarantine facility, and has been an alternative place of detention (APOD) for refugees and asylum seekers for at least a year.

Nearly a decade ago, Australia said that no asylum-seeker who arrived by boat would ever be resettled in the country. Hundreds have been housed in outpatient treatment centers for years, although some have been sent to hotels in Australia to be treated for health conditions.

The refugees still have little hope of freedom, and the conditions in which they are held are highly controversial. Standing in front of the Park Hotel, which is scrawled with the phrase “release them”, Tom Hardman, a 27-year-old teacher, said he came out to support the refugees.

“I’m here because the loneliness and heartache that these men are experiencing due to not knowing when they will be released is unbearable,” he said.

Police stand guard at the government detention center.

Oscar Sterner, 25, said he opposes both anti-vaccination and the way refugees are being held — and said the real problem is putting an unvaccinated visitor in a hotel with refugees who need medical care.

“Djokovic is a millionaire con artist who has rightly angered a lot of people in Australia,” he said. “He can’t even bother getting a vaccine to protect the people around him.”

What looks like inside

His treatment was criticized by Djokovic’s supporters, with the tennis star’s mother saying her son was being “treated like a prisoner”.

“It is very dirty and the food is very bad,” Dijana Djokovic told reporters on Thursday at a news conference in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. “It’s not fair. It’s not human.”

US tennis star John Isner also tweeted in support of Djokovic, saying that keeping him in the hotel “wasn’t right”.

“There is no justification for the treatment he is receiving. He followed the rules, was allowed into Australia, and now he is being held against his will. That is a huge shame.”

Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said on Friday that Djokovic was “not in custody” and could leave the country when he chooses.

“He’s free to leave at any time he chooses to do so and Border Force will really facilitate that,” Andrews told ABC Public. “It is the traveler’s responsibility to ensure they have all the necessary documents needed to enter Australia.”

Australian immigration laws allow for a ban on re-entry into the country for up to three years after a visa is revoked under certain circumstances – but it is unclear whether Djokovic would face such a penalty.

The ATP said in a statement on Friday that Djokovic has been checking his safety.

“With the utmost respect for all personal opinions about vaccinations, vaccinated athletes and unvaccinated athletes (with an approved medical exception) should be given the freedom to compete,” said the association, which was co-founded by Djokovic. “We will continue to support and advocate for our members and all players in a way that is acceptable to them.”

Australia has vowed not to allow these men to settle on its soil.  Some just got visas

According to human rights lawyer Alison Pattison, who has four clients inside the Park Hotel, visitors who do not have the correct visa to Australia are usually handcuffed and driven to an immigration detention center in an unmarked van with blacked out windows.

“It is a very painful and inhumane process,” she said.

A video from the Park Hotel shared with CNN shows detainees being held in small rooms containing a double bed, a TV, and some chairs. Asylum seekers can access a staircase that leads them to a rooftop where they can smoke. It is unclear whether Djokovic will remain in the same conditions.

“This is a window, we can’t open it at any point,” one of the detainees, Adnan Chobani, said in a video filmed for CNN.

While the hotel appears clean and well maintained in the footage shot by Choopani, there have been reports of problems in the past. According to Pattison, there was an outbreak of Covid at the facility last year, and detainees have reported finding larvae in their food.

The other detainees

For the 30 or so refugees held at the hotel, it’s hard to absorb the media spotlight on Djokovic. Many have been held captive for years – and have little hope of getting out.

Mehdi, who asked to use only one name to protect his family, fled Iran when he was 15 and has been held in Australia for more than eight years with limited access to education or health care.

“I took my time,” said Mehdi, who turned 24 on Friday. “We are suffering, weary and tired… You are held indefinitely, which means they can keep you for as long as they can, for as long as they want.”

Cousins ​​Adnan Chobani and Mahdi were 15 years old when they fled Iran.  Now, they are 24 and still in immigration detention.

Chobani said he and fellow detainees were sitting in their rooms, many of whom were taking medication for depression. Chobani is Mehdi’s cousin, and he left Iran when he was 15 as well. He dreams of taking a walk in the street or going out for coffee.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I think this is just a nightmare… We live in the 21st century, in a country that believes in democracy and still practices this kind of behavior with the innocent.”

Although it is unclear if Djokovic will be allowed to play at Melbourne Park this month, the tennis star will eventually be allowed out of the hotel.

Craig Foster, a former Australian national footballer who advocates for asylum seekers, says he hopes at least some good will come from the situation.

“In a way, it’s good for the world to see how Australia treats our arrivals, whether they’re asylum seekers or refugees, or actually an athlete like Novak who simply got it wrong, it seems, about the documents on his visa,” he said.

“If anything, we hope this entire embarrassing saga will come to put Australians in a position where they can better understand the plight of these people.”


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