Tennis star Novak Djokovic’s detention by Australian border authorities has cast a much-needed spotlight on the Australian immigration system. Djokovic was held in the Park hotel in Melbourne, alongside 32 refugees who had sought asylum in Australia and have been indefinitely detained ever since — some for up to nine years.
This part of the story begins in July 2013, when the Labor Party announced that anyone who came to Australia by boat seeking asylum would be sent offshore to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea or Nauru, a tiny island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The refugees incarcerated in the same hotel as Djokovic have already spent many years in these prison camps before being brought to Australia under the now defunct “medevac” law in 2019, which allowed refugees to be brought to Australia to access medical treatment. Rather than receiving the medical care needed, many remain detained in hotels and detention centers across Australia, while others remain in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The furor over Djokovic’s detention has inadvertently provided a space for the detained refugees to speak to the world. But it is not the first time that the treatment of refugees by Australian governments has garnered global attention. In February 2014, approximately 1,000 refugees imprisoned by Australia on Manus Island were attacked after riots broke out and locals entered the camp. At least 100 refugees were badly injured, and Reza Barati, a Kurdish refugee, was killed.
Over many years, refugees and their allies have forced the world to take notice. In January 2015, those detained in the Manus prison camp held a hunger strike which was eventually violently quashed. In November 2017, refugees endured a siege as they resisted the Australian government’s decision to relocate them to prison camps on the other side of the island. Reports and documentation of endemic sexual assaults, suicides, rapes, medical neglect, self-harm and other abuses have been leaked. Refugees have protested and whistleblowers have come forward, yet each time global attention has been brought to bear, the Australian government has ignored it and continued the incarceration and systematic torture of refugees.
Unfortunately, this will likely be the outcome once the Djokovic case is resolved and the world again looks away.
In the coming months, there will be a federal election in Australia. Since the 2001 election, both major political parties have employed border politics in all federal election campaigns. These campaigns have become a competition of who can be the toughest in their treatment of refugees. In 2013, this ramped up with the Liberal-National coalition winning the election — and the following one, in 2019 — by justifying and normalizing human rights violations while promoting themselves as the only party able to protect Australia from refugees or foreigners.
Indeed, border politics has been embedded in the heart of the propaganda that has constructed Australia since the British invaded the continent and set up an occupying government. The production and promotion of fear among the public to shore up a false sovereignty and feed domestic politics has constantly been used to distract the Australian people from real issues — issues that currently include covid-19, public health and the economy.
In Djokovic’s case, he was soon able to access a court, and a judge ruled in his favor. The immigration minister may still overrule the court’s decision by exercising his discretionary power, enabling him to overrule the courts.
Yet the speedy action and outcome Djokovic has been granted stands in stark contrast to the situation facing refugees in Australia, who are caught in an unresponsive, dictatorial system. The immigration minister, under the guise of national security, has been given almost unlimited powers to play with refugees’ lives; this has been colloquially referred to as “God Power.”
In Australia, refugees are unprotected by the law and, at the same time, are victims of the law. History shows that the media and public may pay attention for a moment, but once the celebrity spotlight moves on, the public will likely forget about the refugees and the systematic torture will go on. This cruel and dangerous cycle will only end when the people of Australia use their power to halt this systematic violence.