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World Affairs: Australia

Djokovic case highlights Australia’s xenophobic border laws

Print edition : Feb 11, 2022 T+T-
Novak Djokovic leaves the Park Hotel detention facility in Melbourne after his Australian visa was revoked on January 16.

Novak Djokovic leaves the Park Hotel detention facility in Melbourne after his Australian visa was revoked on January 16.

A public protest against a government decision to cut welfare assistance to 100 asylum-seekers transported to Australia for medical treatment, in Sydney on August 31, 2017.

A public protest against a government decision to cut welfare assistance to 100 asylum-seekers transported to Australia for medical treatment, in Sydney on August 31, 2017.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic may be an egocentric personality with contrarian views, but inadvertently, when his visa application for participating in the Australian Open ended in a fiasco, he has been able to shine a light on the Australian government’s xenophobic immigration policy and its mismanagement of the pandemic.

Thetravails of the tennis star Novak Djokovic in Australia have made headlines all over the world. Djokovic, one the world’s biggest sports personalities, was detained at The Park Hotel, a designated “alternative place of detention” for refugees and asylum seekers, after his visa was first revoked. His visa was finally revoked in the second week of January. Previously, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants were put in refugee camps in the remote Pacific nation of Nauru and in Manus Island located in Papua New Guinea.

The presence of the tennis star in a hotel housing refugees from war-torn countries briefly brought international attention to their plight. Some of them have been incarcerated there for more than three years.

Djokovic’s unvaccinated status has made him an unpopular figure among the sporting fraternity and a bad role model at a time when the world is battling another deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian government was apparently twiddling its thumbs when the country’s tennis federation and the local government decided to invite Djokovic at the eleventh hour to defend his crown at Australian Open 2022. His entry visa was stamped by Australia’s Department of Home Affairs. Another victory at the Australian Open would have made him the undisputed all-time great in world tennis as he would have overtaken his closest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the number of Grand Slam victories.

Djokovic was initially granted a visa to travel to Australia, despite his unvaccinated status. This resulted in a public outcry from citizens who were already angry at the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Public backlash

Sensing the public mood, the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to revoke Djokovic’s visa after he landed in the country. The Prime Minister had previously not objected to the granting of the visa. He said that the granting of the visa to the Serbian tennis star was a decision taken by the State government of Victoria, and added that the Labour-run State government had provided Djokovic “with an exemption to come to Australia. So, we then act in accordance with that decision.” The immediate public backlash forced the Prime Minister to backtrack and reverse his earlier stand.

Morrison said that Djokovic would be “on the next plane back home” if he failed to offer proof that he could not be vaccinated. If a definitive statement about denial of entry had been made by the government before Djokovic undertook his trip to Melbourne, then he would not have left Belgrade. The entire drama was enacted to bolster the government’s tough image on immigration-related issues and the spread of the pandemic.

An Australian judge, presiding over the case filed by Djokovic after he was detained on arrival in the first week of January, ruled that the tennis player was treated unfairly and ordered that he be allowed to enter the country. Djokovic was all set to play the first round when Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his executive authority and revoked Djokovic’s visa on the “grounds of health and good order”. He said that he had taken the decision in the interest of the Australian public.

Prime Minister Morrison, whose popularity has eroded in recent months, faces an election this year. He and his party hope that the tough stance he has taken against Djokovic in particular, and with immigrants and refugees in general, will help score another upset at the polls. The “tough on immigration” policy was a key factor that propelled him to victory the last time in a closely fought election.

Meanwhile, in recent months, the government has shifted from a tough “COVID zero” policy to a fairly relaxed “living with the virus” one. This sudden change has perplexed many Australians, who had to undergo two years of strict lockdowns. Many ruling party parliamentarians have publicly aired their scepticism about the efficacy of COVID vaccines. The Djokovic affair helped to turn public attention, at least for the time being, away from the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. Justifying the Immigration Minister’s decision to deport Djokovic, Prime Minister Morrison said that Australians have made “many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected”.

The Immigration Minister cancelled Djokovic’s visa on technical grounds, citing a risk to public health. He claimed that the tennis star’s presence the country could lead to “civil unrest”. The Minister did not dispute Djokovic’s contention that he had been granted a valid vaccine exemption when he was allowed to travel to Australia. Chief Justice James Allsop of the Federal Court of Australia announced that the court unanimously upheld the Minister’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa. The Serbian was on his way back home a day before he was to compete in the first round of the Australian Open tournament on January 17.

The powers of the Immigration Minister in Australia have increased substantially since the United States-led war on terror began 20 years ago. The government has the power to revoke visas within 10 minutes. Unlike Djokovic, an ordinary traveller with a valid visa will have no access to legal help. According to many legal experts, Australia has the strictest border controls and detention policies in the world. Although 30 per cent of Australians were born in another country, outsiders are no longer all that welcome. Scott Morrison earned his reputation as a hardliner on immigration while serving as the Immigration Minister in a previous government.

The case of the Murugappan family seeking asylum in Australia has become a cause celebre. The family of four has been fighting a long battle to avoid deportation to Sri Lanka since their visas were revoked in 2018.

The family members, including two children, were taken away from their home in Biloela in Queensland and detained first in Christmas Island and later in an immigration detention centre in Perth. The Australian government has given short-term bridging visas to three members of the family but not to the youngest member, their four-year-old daughter, Tharni. She was born in Australia but the government has denied her citizenship. The Australian Immigration Minister has the power to grant the daughter a visa and the family the status of legal immigrants. Alex Hawke has remained unmoved so far despite outpourings of public support for the family.

Zero-tolerance immigration policy

Since the beginning of the last decade, Australia has been implementing a “zero-tolerance policy” towards asylum seekers. “The Pacific solution” policy was first implemented in 2001. The then Prime Minister John Howard said: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” The policy was implemented after 438 refugees, mostly Afghans, were rescued by a Norwegian ship from a sinking ferry and deposited on Australian territory. The captain of the Norwegian ship had disobeyed the Australian government’s orders to take the refugees elsewhere.

Within weeks of the incident, the Australian government signed an agreement with the government of the small island republic of Nauru to establish a detention centre for asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia. Howard’s tough line on refugees helped his Liberal Party get re-elected. The agreement with the Papua New Guinea government for detaining asylum seekers on Manus Island was signed a few months later, in October 2001. A Labour Party government led by Kevin Rudd closed down the detention centres in 2008, but another Labour government, led by Julia Gillard, reopened them four years later. Refugees were also relocated to Christmas Island, which is an Australian territory.

The havoc wrought by the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to an increase in the refugee influx into the region. A small minority of refugees, some of them from South Asia, tried to reach Australia by sea. In most cases they were intercepted on the high seas before they could reach Australian shores and promptly incarcerated in prison-like camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Unaccompanied children were among those sent to Nauru by their legally appointed guardian, the Australian Immigration Minister. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared in 2013 that no child, unaccompanied or with parents, should be sent to Nauru, given the harsh environment there. In 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention of refugees in Manus was illegal and in breach of fundamental human rights.

Those detained were given the choice of returning to their countries, finding another country that would accept them or waiting indefinitely for their claims to be processed by the Australian government. The government stated that there was “no limit in law or policy to the length of time for which a person may be detained”. Many of the camps the Australian government set up were supervised by a company which runs prisons in the country. A 23-year-old undocumented Kurd from Iraq who was transferred to Manus Island from Australia was killed by security guards seven years ago. Guards injured 70 other inmates while trying to put down a violent protest against the dire living conditions in the camp.

Hellish camp conditions

A journalist visiting the Manus camp in 2015 described the inhuman conditions the refugees were forced to live in. “It is like living in hell,” a resident of the camp told the reporter. The tiny island republic of Nauru where the other camp is located had banned journalists on the island from reporting on the plight of the refugees that the Australian government had sent. There were allegations of rape in the Nauru camp. Investigators found that some security guards exchanged marijuana for sex. A government inquiry admitted that it was aware of three instances of rape, including one against a minor, as well as instances of “indecent assault, sexual harassment and physical assault occurring in the centre”.

Peter Young, a psychiatrist, told The Guardian that the refugee policy implemented by the Australian government is designed to produce suffering. He explained: “If you suffer, then it is punishment. If you suffer, you are most likely to go back to where you came from.” After much international criticism of its policies, the Australian government repatriated around 180 people from the camps in Nauru and Manus to Australia under a short-lived medical evacuation law in 2019. More people were due to be evacuated but the Australian Senate repealed the law within months. Before the law was implemented, 12 asylum seekers died in offshore detention.

The government said that the medical evacuation law posed a security risk to the country. Morrison said: “Someone who’s a paedophile, who’s a rapist, who has committed murder—any of these other crimes—can just be moved on the say-so of a couple of doctors on Skype.” Those speaking on behalf of refugees had criticised his claims. An Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Khazaee, died in Manus Island after the Australian authorities denied the pleas of his doctors for urgent medical attention.

According to aid agencies, many of the refugees suffer from ailments such as cancer, gynaecological problems and diabetes. Children in the camps are especially prone to mental breakdowns. The United Nations and other agencies have repeatedly described the conditions in the camp as “horrid”, saying that the refugees living there are subject to “severe abuse and neglect”. In 2017, the Australian government agreed to pay $53 million to 1,900 asylum seekers who had sued it over the treatment meted out to them in the Manus camp. The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor said that Australia’s offshore detention centres constituted “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment” and other possible crimes against humanity.

In 2019, the Australian government finally allowed all children to leave the camps. Along with more than a thousand refugees, they were given refugee status by the U.S. government after a deal with the Australian government. Donald Trump, after taking over the presidency, criticised the deal which was signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. He called it the “worst deal ever” signed by the U.S. government and openly criticised the Australian government for passing on its responsibility.

Many of the refugees who have been locked up in specially designated hotels have urged Djokovic to use his celebrity status to tell the world about the conditions they are living in and advocate for their freedom. Crowds that gathered outside the Melbourne hotel where Djokovic was forced to spend many nights shouted slogans demanding freedom for the tennis star as well as for the refugees. Djokovic may be an egocentric personality with contrarian views, but inadvertently he has been able to shine a light on the Australian government’s xenophobic immigration policy and its mismanagement of the pandemic.