'Detained for no crime': Djokovic's hotel 'torture' again exposes brutal refugee limbo

Immigration detainees at Park Hotel in Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images
Immigration detainees at Park Hotel in Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images

One tennis superstar's five-day hotel "torture" continues to be the daily reality for hundreds of people for two years and counting.

Refugees and asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat nearly a decade ago have remained indefinitely detained by the federal government, leaving their lives, and futures, in limbo.

It's a period of time that has seen locked-up children become teenagers, and teenagers become young adults.

Hidden inside tiny hotel rooms, with no fresh air nor space for leisure, lies the confronting human impact of the Coalition government's hardline "stop the boats" policy, which has suddenly been thrust into the international spotlight.

More specifically, it's a spotlight that shines on the unremarkable exterior of Park Hotel on Melbourne's busy Swanston Street.

For five days, the Serbian national and world No.1 male tennis player, Novak Djokovic was detained after his visa was called into question suddenly on arrival.

The high-profile sports star had been granted a medical exemption from vaccination requirements, but border authorities contended the proof he had provided was not adequate.

He was taken to the hotel in Carlton, where he spent five nights before a judge ruled for his release to deal with his court matters.

'I've experienced nine birthdays in detention'

Mehdi Ali is one of those locked up inside the four-star hotel, who remained in the room he's lived in for two months as the world No.1 tennis star was afforded the privilege of packing up and leaving.

After arriving in the country as a 15-year-old, the now 24-year-old has spent both his 18th and 21st birthdays detained.

He agreed with Djokovic's mother, who, according to a BBC translator, said her son's stay there had been "torture".

"He's been here for five days in that situation, and it is torture," Mehdi said.

"Even for a day, or two days, is torture.

"I've experienced nine birthdays in detention."

Mehdi, like others who walk the hotel's corridors but can never leave the front door, lived in offshore detention at Nauru before being transported to onshore centres in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Many others who share the space were brought to Melbourne for emergency medical treatment under the medevac law, which has since been repealed.

While some have since been treated, they remain detained in what the government calls "alternative places of detention", or APODs, which include hotels, community housing and hospitals.

They treat us worse than they treat criminals, because criminals, at least they had a trial to fight for their case.

Mehdi Ali

Long-term refugee advocate and Australian National University emeritus professor John Minns said the extraordinary border polices were inhumane and added further damage to the lives of thousands of vulnerable humans escaping life-threatening situations.

Professor Minns, who is also an executive member of the ACT chapter of Refugee Action Campaign, said the refugees' detention was more than double that handed to some people convicted of serious criminal charges.

"The average term served in Australia for the crime of rape is between three and four years," he said.

"These people have been detained for no crime whatsoever for about nine years. This is an extraordinary situation.

"It's not just that it's inhumane policy. It's actually really bad policy.

"It's incredibly expensive to enforce it, and the outcomes ultimately mean that you're looking after people who are extremely damaged due to very long periods of detention."

'I don't know when I'm going to get out'

For Mehdi, it's the uncertainty surrounding his release that weighs heaviest on him.

"It's hard to to keep human beings in rooms in detentions indefinitely, not telling them when they are going to get out," he said.

"They treat us worse than they treat criminals, because criminals, at least they had a trial to fight for their case and they had a sentence for a crime they committed.

"And yet I don't know when I'm going to get out."


The Refugee Council of Australia said while the Djokovic saga did shine the spotlight on the government's treatment of refugees, it also highlighted a lack of justice.

Deputy chief executive Adama Karama said Djokovic's ordeal was a much shorter version of an ordeal many had experienced for much longer under a brutal border policy.

"The Djokovic case just shows the unfairness of the processes for people who are seeking protection in Australia," she said.

"Djokovic was able to get a decision in five days, whereas people who seek protection are waiting for years.

"We feel like there needs to be a fair judicial process in place so people can get a decision and their lives aren't left in limbo."

Novak Djokovic during a past Australian Open tournament. Picture: Shutterstock

Novak Djokovic during a past Australian Open tournament. Picture: Shutterstock

The advocacy group has been working with like-minded international groups to resettle some of Australia's processed refugees in Canada, with plans to arrange and sponsor relocation for around 100 refugees in offshore centres.

But it's been doing so through private fundraising efforts, without the government's assistance.

Compassionate options were available, but the government chose not to implement them, Ms Karama added.

Locking up refugees 'serves no purpose'

The tragedy of it, Professor Minns said, was that the refugees could all be freed from detention tomorrow.

But politically, neither the Coalition or Labor would budge on the tough stance for fear it would lose them votes, he said.

It's a grim outlook ahead of the upcoming federal election.

"No purpose, except the most measly, political, grubby advantage, is served by keeping them there," Professor Minns said.

"They'd lose nothing, and they would possibly save lives - certainly allow these people to start their lives,"

Mehdi, while exhausted, said he was excited that Djokovic's short detention had reminded the country, and the world, about the situation in which the refugees remain.

But it was only a glimmer of hope, after nearly a decade spent trapped.

"It created more awareness for people to find out about us, and I'm excited about that," he said.

"And I'm also sad because the media hasn't done their job all these years."

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This story Djokovic's hotel 'torture' a grim, years-long reality for refugees first appeared on The Canberra Times.