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Tennis star Novak Djokovic draws renewed attention to Australia’s ‘detention hotels’

People demonstrate Jan. 6 at Melbourne's Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held while he stays in Australia. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)
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This report has been updated.

While Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic awaits a court ruling on whether he can stay in Australia to compete in the Australian Open, he is being held in the Park Hotel, close to the University of Melbourne, according to media reports — a facility used to host refugees and asylum seekers and for coronavirus quarantine that has been at the center of protests over the treatment of migrants.

Djokovic was detained Thursday in Melbourne after Australia denied him entry to the country, rejecting his case for a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine requirement. The visa drama put a spotlight on Australia’s strict covid-19 policies and its long-standing use of detention hotels, some of which have been repurposed as quarantine centers.

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The Park Hotel is most associated with foreign nationals seeking visas to remain in Australia, some of whom have stayed in the building for years. About 50 refugees are being held now, according to Australia’s 9 News.

Human rights advocates who denounced the living conditions in which refugees have been detained have made the hotel the focal point of protests. Dozens of demonstrators gathered there in October, demanding the release of refugees after a coronavirus outbreak in the hotel. Sixteen refugees had tested positive at the time, the Refugee Action Coalition told SBS News.

“This is reckless indifference to the lives [of refugees]. ... Our concern is that the rest of the refugees are not safe inside the hotel. It’s a sealed incubator, and they can’t open the windows,” Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Breen told SBS News.

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Asylum seekers there have reported being served maggot-infested food. A fire broke out last month.

Adnan Choopani, a 24-year-old refugee who fled Iran when he was 15 and has been detained in Australia since then, showed Australia’s ITV News his room at the Park Hotel.

“We’re under guard 24/7, and the windows can’t be opened at any stage,” he said in a video released Friday. “We’ve been receiving moldy bread, the food is kind of disgusting, and we don’t have access to fresh air,” he added, showing the meals he had been served.

Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar, a Kurdish immigrant who spent six years held offshore on Manus Island followed by 14 months in two hotels in Melbourne, sued the Australian government under the argument that its use of hotels to hold migrants is illegal.

“The government locked me up illegally in a hotel that they used as a prison. I want my rights back,” Azimitabar said in July 2020, according to the Guardian. Azimitabar, who was held at the Mantra and Park hotels, is seeking damages. Australia has used hotels for asylum seekers and refugees who are transported to the mainland from offshore detention centers — such as Manus Island — for medical attention.

“The whole world is watching as Novak Djokovic is detained at Park hotel prison,” Azimitabar wrote on Twitter. “As a refugee I was imprisoned there, [and] refugees are still imprisoned there in tiny rooms without fresh air. No one deserves this. Let’s not forget the people that will remain long after Novak leaves.”

“The hotel where Djokovic has been sent is also holding asylum seekers who’ve been detained for more than 8 years by Australia,” wrote Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Australia of “mistreatment” of and “harassment” toward Djokovic and said the “whole of Serbia” is standing behind him. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told Sky News on Thursday that Djokovic should be allowed to move to a house that his team rented in Melbourne, one that is equipped with a tennis court.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied that Djokovic has been targeted and said he “won’t be treated any different to anyone else.”

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“There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic,” he said Wednesday at a news conference in Canberra.

A statement published by the Australian Border Force said the agency could confirm that the athlete “failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled. Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia.”

It also stated that Djokovic had access to his phone.