Djokovic debacle exposes Australia’s xenophobic policies…

Supporters of Novak Djokovic angered at the detention of the Serbian tennis star in Australia take part in a protest in Vienna on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

COVID-19 pandemic has shown how the leaders in Canberra really feel about foreigners entering the country

Australia’s tough border laws have been the envy of conservative governments around the world. But this time, those regulations — the ones that put a hold on the grand slam ambitions of the men’s No. 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic — have collided with the country’s pandemic restrictions and a global sporting event. It’s produced a political firestorm that’s burning from Belgrade to Canberra.

Fear of COVID-19 has dovetailed with xenophobia to express what Australian governments really feel about foreigners entering their shores. That Djokovic spent several days confined to a Melbourne hotel that has been used as yet another ad-hoc detention center for refugees — many who’ve been locked up in one form or another for nine years — only serves to highlight the nation’s squeamishness over migration. On Monday, a local court quashed the cancellation of his visa and ordered his immediate release. Djokovic may yet be able to play in the Australian Open, which begins on Jan. 17.

The furor has also brought to global attention the nation’s eye-wateringly expensive immigration policy, which has caused immeasurable suffering to the thousands who’ve endured it. As of September, 1,459 people remain caught in its cruel limbo. It’s estimated that offshore processing cost the Australian government $6.2 billion from 2014 and 2020, with the annual bill for the detention of a single asylum seeker in Papua New Guinea or Nauru estimated to be $2.5 million, according to the Kaldor Center for International and Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales.

The tennis star is not the only weary traveler to arrive in Australia and have his visa canceled. As Sangeetha Pillai from the Kaldor Center wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday, the sheer breadth of the powers to cancel visas held by the minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and multicultural affairs is extraordinary. Many people, including those at extreme risk of political and personal violence, have had their visas revoked by officials — even those who lodge, or may submit, asylum claims, Pillai noted.

Unlike Djokovic, they have limited or no access to legal advice. Many of have been deported in secret. At least two young Saudi women were turned back at Sydney Airport after making their asylum claims clear to Australian officials, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported in 2019, while another two sisters from the conservative Gulf state were prevented from boarding a flight from Hong Kong to Sydney despite having valid visas. It’s unclear how many have been turned away, Human Rights Watch’s Australia Researcher, Sophie McNeill, told me.

“You can see from the transcript how they treat people,” McNeill said of the details of the conversation between Djokovic and border officials released as part of the court case. “If they do this to a millionaire tennis player like Djokovic, what must it be like for others? When you have a judge consider the fairness of the process, it highlights just how unjust it is.”

As one of Australia’s best-known former refugees, Behrouz Boochani, noted on Twitter: “The difference between refugees and @DjokerNole goes beyond the length of their detentions. The asymmetry extends to the fact that Djokovic is able to defend himself in court and refugees are not; they are totally failed by the judicial system.” Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, filmmaker and author, was held in an Australian-run detention center on Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island from 2013 until it closed in 2017. He was then moved to Port Moresby and later fled to New Zealand in 2019, where he was later granted refugee status.

Now, it’s the plight of a Sri Lankan Tamil couple, Priya and Nades Murugappan, and their two young daughters, Kopika and Tharunicaa, aged 5 and 3, who’ve been detained on an isolated Australian island for almost two years, that has caught public attention. It’s a violation of international law to use immigration detention as a punishment. It’s also illegal to forcibly return refugees to the place from which they’re seeking asylum. Australia is guilty of both these actions, and yet it gets away with it.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who as immigration minister in 2013-2014 was the driving force behind the latest version of Australia’s harsh border policies, including offshore processing and turning back asylum-seeker vessels, had a trophy in his office that proudly notes that he stopped the boats. But he was merely following previous political leaders like John Howard, the long-serving conservative prime minister who in 2001 famously refused permission for the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter carrying 433 refugees and five crew rescued from a fishing vessel, to enter Australian waters. The so-called “Pacific Solution” saw the Tampa refugees — mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan — sent to detention on the tiny island of Nauru. Manus Island was roped in later.

Cruelty to refugees swings both ways. Labor leaders including Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have overseen offshore processing policies, with Rudd announcing in 2013 that anyone seeking asylum by boat would not be resettled in Australia. For a country whose entire modern history is built on migration — and the ongoing violent dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — it’s a difficult obsession to understand.

Now other countries are following suit. Denmark’s government last year passed legislation allowing the transfer of asylum seekers to third countries outside the European Union, while the U.K.’s new borders bill, currently before Parliament, has been criticized by Conservative MPs for its potential to create a “British Guantanamo Bay.”

With a federal election due by May, activists hope that the global shame that comes with Djokovic’s legal win — which has laid bare the unfair and callous nature of Australia’s laws — may force a long-called for overhaul the nation’s offshore detention regime. And a rethink by other governments considering importing this peculiar kind of cruelty from Down Under.

Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion.

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