For months, activists have gathered outside a rundown hotel in central Melbourne, calling for the dozens of refugees held inside to be freed.
But on Friday, a different group of protesters had an unusual detainee in their sights: tennis World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who is confined to the hotel as he mounts a legal challenge to the revocation of his visa ahead of the Australian Open.
“Free Novac [sic],” read one protester’s handwritten sign stuck to a tennis racket. “Let Novac play.”
Australian Open organizers said Tuesday that Djokovic – who has previously criticized Covid-19 vaccine mandates – was granted a “medical exemption” from the requirement that international travelers must be fully vaccinated to enter the country.
But Djokovic arrived in Australia this week to find his visa revoked, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the 34-year-old Serb “didn’t have a valid medical exemption.”
Tennis Australia was advised in a letter as far back as November 2021 that unvaccinated players with a recent Covid-19 infection would not be allowed to enter the country based on public health guidelines, Morrison told reporters Thursday.
Djokovic’s legal team won an urgent injunction against the decision, but it remains unclear whether the defending Australian Open men’s singles champion will be able to compete in the tournament, which starts January 17.
Court documents published on Saturday by Australia’s Federal Circuit show that Djokovic was granted a medical exemption to compete after testing positive Covid-19 in December. His lawyers are appealing the visa cancellation and did not wish to comment ahead of his court hearing Monday.
Djokovic case has gone far beyond an individual visa issue. It’s prompted anger from people who feel the rich and powerful are getting an easy ride when it comes to Australia’s tough Covid-19 rules, which have seen families separated for years – but it’s also angered anti-vaxxers who believe coronavirus restrictions are encroaching on their civil liberties. And it’s prompted concerns from Australia’s Serbian community, some of whom say Djokovic is being unfairly targeted.
But Djokovic’s situation has also highlighted the plight of asylum seekers in Australia. While the tennis star will ultimately either be allowed to play in the tournament or forced to leave the country, other detainees in the same facility have been locked up for years – and face indefinite detention under Australia’s tough immigration rules.
As dozens of protesters from disparate groups of the political spectrum gathered outside the Park Hotel on Friday, there was one thing that united them: the push for freedom.
Some were from Serbian cultural groups, singing and waving the Balkan country’s flag, who saw Djokovic’s detention as a great injustice against one of the world’s biggest sports stars.
“I don’t see why he should be stuck in a detention center,” said Tara, a 17-year-old Australian-Serb and junior tennis player, who did not give a last name. “Everyone has their own freedom of choice, vaccinated or not.”
Djokovic, who is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on a record 20 men’s grand slam singles titles, has not publicly revealed his vaccination status but voiced opposition to Covid-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates in April 2020.
Others used Djokovic’s plight as an opportunity to criticize how vaccine mandates had curtailed civil liberties.
One woman – who gave her name only as Matty for privacy reasons – said if Djokovic went home, she wouldn’t watch the Australian Open.
“I used to go every year – I can’t this year because of the vaccine mandates,” said Matty, who added she is unvaccinated.
Another masked person, who declined to speak to CNN, held a sign declaring Djokovic a “hostage of the communist state.”
But others focused their attention on the approximately 30 refugees held in the hotel.
Previously used by the Australian government as a Covid-19 quarantine facility, the hotel has been an Alternative Place of Detention (APOD) for refugees and asylum seekers for at least a year.
Nearly a decade ago, Australia said no asylum seekers who arrived by boat would ever be settled in the country. Hundreds were housed at offshore processing centers for years, although some were sent to hotels in Australia to be treated for health conditions.
The refugees still have little hope of freedom, and the conditions they are held in is hugely controversial. Standing in front of the Park Hotel, which is tagged with the words “free them,” Tom Hardman, a 27-year-old teacher, said he had come out in support of the refugees.
“I’m here because the loneliness and the heartache these men suffer from not knowing when they will be released is unbearable to witness,” he said.
Oscar Sterner, 25, said he was opposed to both anti-vaxxers and the way refugees were kept in detention – and said the real problem was putting an unvaccinated visitor in a hotel with refugees who required medical attention.
“Djokovic is a millionaire scumbag who has rightly incurred the anger of a lot of people in Australia,” he said. “He can’t be bothered to get vaccinated to protect the people around him.”
What it’s like inside
Djokovic’s supporters have hit out at his treatment, with the tennis star’s mother saying her son is being “treated like a prisoner.”
“It’s so dirty and the food is so terrible,” Dijana Djokovic told reporters Thursday at a news conference in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. “It’s just not fair. It’s not human.”
American tennis star John Isner also tweeted in support of Djokovic, saying keeping him in the hotel was “not right.”
“There’s no justification for the treatment he’s receiving. He followed the rules, was allowed to enter Australia, and now he’s being detained against his own will. This is such a shame.”
Australia’s home affairs minister Karen Andrews said Friday that Djokovic is “not being held captive” and can leave the country when he chooses.
“He is free to leave at anytime that he chooses to do so and Border Force will actually facilitate that,” Andrews told public broadcaster ABC. “It is the individual traveler’s responsibility to make sure that they have in place all the necessary documentation that is needed to enter Australia.”
Australian immigration laws allow for an up to three year re-entry ban into the country following a visa cancellation under certain conditions – but it is unclear if Djokovic will face such a penalty.
In a statement Friday, the Professional Tennis Players Association said Djokovic had verified his well-being.
“With the utmost respect for all personal views on vaccinations, vaccinated athletes and unvaccinated athletes (with an approved medical exemption) should both be afforded 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 manner that is acceptable to them.”
According to human rights lawyer Alison Battisson, who has four clients inside the Park Hotel, visitors without the correct visa for Australia are normally handcuffed and transported to an immigration detention center in an unmarked van with blacked-out windows.
“It is an incredibly traumatic and dehumanizing process,” she said.
Video of the Park Hotel shared with CNN shows detainees in small rooms that include a double bed, a TV and some chairs. Asylum seekers have access to a stairway that leads them to a rooftop where they are able to smoke. It’s unclear whether Djokovic is staying in the same conditions.
“This is a window, we can’t open it at any stage,” said Adnan Choopani, one of the detainees, in a video filmed for CNN.
While the hotel appears clean and well-kept in footage filmed by Choopani, there have been reports of issues in the past. According to Battison, there was a Covid outbreak in the facility last year, and detainees have reported finding maggots in their food.
The other detainees
For the 30 or so refugees held in the hotel, the media spotlight on Djokovic is difficult to swallow. Many have been detained for years – and have little hope of ever getting out.
Mehdi, who asked to only use one name to protect his family, escaped from Iran when he was 15 years old and has been held in Australian detention for more than eight years with limited access to education or health care.
“I’ve served my time,” said Mehdi, who turned 24 on Friday. “We are suffering, we are exhausted and we are tired … you are in indefinite detention, which means they can keep you as long as they can, as long as they want.”
Choopani said he and his fellow detainees were just sitting in their rooms, with many of them taking medication for depression. Choopani is Mehdi’s cousin, and he left Iran when he was also 15. He dreams of taking a walk on a street or going out for a coffee.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I think this is just a nightmare … we live in the 21st century, in a country who believes in democracy still doing this kind of behavior to innocent people.”
Although it’s unclear whether Djokovic will be allowed to play at Melbourne Park this month, the tennis star will eventually be let out of the hotel.
Craig Foster, a former Australia national team footballer who advocates on behalf of the asylum seekers, says he hopes at least some good can come from the situation.
“In one way, it’s good for the world to see how Australia has been treating our entrants, whether they’re asylum seekers or refugees, or indeed an athlete like Novak who has simply fallen afoul, apparently, on the documentation on his visa,” he said.
“If anything, we’re hoping that this entire embarrassing saga comes to place Australians in a position where they understand more the plight of these people.”