27 November 2022

Refugee advocates react to Djokovic media circus

By Chris Shearer

13 January 2022

The government’s sensational attempts to cancel Serbian tennis ace Novak Djokovic’s visa this week drew the media’s attention, if only fleetingly, to a group of men whose circumstances contrasted with the world number one’s.

Mr Djokovic was briefly confined in the Park Hotel Carlton, where about 30 refugees and asylum seekers have been held since the reversal of the short-lived MediVac laws.

Some of those men have been held for nine years. Mr Djokovic spent just a few days in detention.

Here, The Melbourne Anglican has collected the reactions of several refugee advocates to the saga.

These statements have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Revd Dr Gordon Preece, Executive Officer of the diocesan Social Responsibilities Committee

The comparative plights of Novak Djokovic and his fellow ‘guests’, the much longer-term asylum seekers held in the Park Hotel in Carlton, have drawn some, but not nearly enough, attention during the standoff between the Federal Government and the world number one tennis star.

In ruling in Djokovic’s favour against the Federal Government, Judge Kelly took an eminently reasonable and compassionate line, asking “what else could he possibly have done?”.

The question still stands over the arbitrary power of the Australian government and its increasingly militarised and militant Border Force. But the question should really be directed to the plight of the asylum seekers. Theirs is stark and inhumane situation, caught in a long legalistic limbo. What else could they possibly have done?

Despite the judge’s verdict, Djokovic can arbitrarily have his visa cancelled and be deported by the Immigration Minister, unable to return to ply his trade for three years. Such dictatorial power is not to be entrusted to any single person.

But the Serbian tennis star is lucky he can return to relative freedom. Not so for the thirty or so young men largely left over and forgotten in the Park Hotel after the overturning of the short-live MediVac legislation.

Once again Australia’s asylum seeker shame has been highlighted globally, like the Tampa’d election 20 years ago, only to be forgotten once Djokovic returns home. It’s time our leaders, joined now in bipartisan electoral barbarism, elected to seek justice and mercy for asylum seekers, before the distraction of bread and tennis circuses leaves another generation of asylum seekers locked down in limbo, bereft of hope.

Dr Audrey Statham, SRC and Refugee Advocacy Network member*

The international incident which has seen the world’s number 1 tennis player locked up for four days alongside 33 refugees indefinitely detained in a hotel in Melbourne has also, arguably, shone a light on the unfettered power of the Minister for Immigration under the Migration Act to cancel or grant visas on the basis of public interest. 

One such power was invoked on Monday night when the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, advised he would consider using his personal power under the Migration Act to re-cancel Djokovich’s visa, immediately after it was reactivated by a Federal Circuit Court judge’s procedural ruling against the cancellation by Australian Border Force of the tennis star’s visa.

Appeals to the personal power of the Minister are also regularly made by refugees and their supporters when they request that he exercise ministerial discretion to grant bridging visas, which would allow, for example, the refugees to be released from Park Hotel into the community while their re-settlement options are being determined.

The Minister is not accountable in how he exercises these powers over Djokovic and the refugees, and decisions cannot be appealed if they are made by the Minister personally, which is why some call them ‘God powers.’

After the attention of the world media cycle moves on, and after the medevac refugees are – hopefully – released, people of faith as well as those without any connection to religion who are concerned about the health of democracy in Australia, must not forget but, surely, question and challenge the current ability of the Minister for Immigration under Australian law to play God with people’s lives.

Paul Power, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council of Australia

Novak Djokovic’s detention and subsequent speedy appeal process contrasts starkly with the ongoing and prolonged inhumane treatment of refugees in Australia’s migration system.

Refugees seeking asylum in Australian airports don’t even get access to lawyers before they are put on the next flight out of Australia, let alone a chance to argue their case.

Djokovic, on the other hand, had access to a team of lawyers who were able to lodge an urgent injunction preventing him from being deported.

Refugees don’t have access to review or procedural fairness, whereas Djokovic arrived on January 5 – and by January 10 had had his case heard and appeal granted …

Djokovic was detained in Melbourne’s Park Hotel, alongside refugees whom the Australian Government has kept in detention for over nine years …

Indefinite, arbitrary detention is a violation of international human rights law, yet Australia continues this practice without serious repercussion.

It is disappointing that it has taken the detention of a tennis player to highlight Australia’s ongoing practice of mandatory detention on the world stage.

The people detained alongside Djokovic have not committed any crime, nor had their visa cancelled. They have been detained indefinitely simply for seeking asylum in Australia.

While the world watches with concern how Djokovic is treated, let us consider the plight of those still locked up where Djokovic spent a few days.

Imam Alaa Elzokm, Bishop Philip Huggins, Rabbi Shamir Caplan, Harold Zwier, joint statement from multifaith leaders

Hospitality to vulnerable strangers is deeply civilised behaviour. It is kind and it is a shared value of our faith traditions.

Hence, we urge again that our Prime Minister and Federal Government complete the release of those still in Australian detention centres, including hotel detention.

Several of us have been to Canberra times past to make this request. We make it again now, in the aftermath of publicity surrounding Novak Djokovic. His stay in the now notorious Park Hotel has been fewer days than the years those detained refugees and asylum seekers have been locked away.

Some have been detained for more than 8 years!

For them, under current Government legislation, there is still no end in sight. There is no legislated end to the anguish caused by indefinite detention.

The sadness of those detained has been vivid in the unexpected publicity given by the brief presence of a celebrity in the same bleak hotel …

Life is short. Political power is ephemeral. Every opportunity to do what is decent and kind should be taken. The pandemic has amplified our awareness of such realities and required us to adjust many other policies in changed circumstances.

It would be uplifting if the release of those still detained could be accomplished very soon so we can sing with greater integrity that we are “one and free”!

*Dr Statham’s are her own do not necessarily reflect the position of the Refugee Advocacy Network

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