01/07/2022, 14.28
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Djokovic at the Park Hotel along with rejected asylum seekers held since 2013

by Giorgio Licini *

The case of the world tennis star is turning the spotlight forced in the same cramped quarters with 34 refugees whose request for asylum has been rejected for nine years. Held first on the islands of Manus and Nauru, they were eventually moved to Australia for health reasons. Faced with an upcoming election campaign amid a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Morrison is trying to show (at least for a few days) that the policy of rigour on illegal entries applies to everyone.

Port Moresby (AsiaNews) – It was already obvious that world tennis star Novak Djovokic would have problems arriving in Australia when he was still on the plane taking him to Melbourne.

It is likely that the Australian federal government had already decided that the organisers of the Australian Open and the State of Victoria had turned a blind eye to the champion’s vaccination refusal. Or his staff had managed to circumvent Australian diplomatic representation abroad.

There is no need to note which sporting, television and financial interests were at stake. However, it was Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who at this moment cannot afford further loss of support at home, who paid the price for a clear case of favouritism.

Australians will go to the poll in a federal election between March and June. Morrison unexpectedly won in 2019. Now COVID-19 and some sex and financial scandals involving his coalition government are about to pull the rug from under him.

While the pandemic was successfully managed and contained until a few weeks ago thanks largely to the actions of Australia’s federated states, now it is increasing more than in any other Pacific country. Like other right-wing politicians, Scott Morrison always underestimated it.

At present, Novak Djokovic is being held for challenging the entry ban in court. He could be free at any time if he decides to leave Australia or if the laws and the judiciary allow him to stay in the country. A hearing into the matter is set for Monday afternoon.

However, what has stunned the public is not the athlete’s misadventure at customs, but the fact that the Serbian tennis player is being held at the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

This is not the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, used for illegal immigrants arriving or already in the country, but an informal and temporary structure managed by the Australian Border Force.

The Park Hotel was part of the prestigious Rydges Hotels & Resorts chain until it was the scene of a COVID-19 outbreak at the start of the pandemic; after that it was leased to the federal government to hold refugees who arrived by sea in 2013,

The latter were first sent to the remote islands of Manus and Nauru in the Pacific, then moved back to Australia in 2019 for never treated health reasons. Some 34 are still in custody, forced to live in closed and cramped quarters at the Park Hotel.

A couple of weeks ago, a section of the facility burnt down with the refugees and asylum seekers, mostly young Middle Easterners, sheltering in the basement. Recently, on social media they posted pictures of rotten and maggot-riddled food served to them.

Under Australian law, the refugees cannot stay in the country because they arrived by sea between July and December 2013. For this reason, they have been detained ever since, and in principle they must leave Australia as soon as possible.

Novak Djovokic is not the first to challenge one of the strictest laws in the world against illegal entry. Others are paying a much higher price than his short stay at the Park Hotel.

In other times, his name and fame might have allowed him a different treatment. Not now. COVID-19 has put governments and politicians under pressure. All the more so when the problem gets worse after being underestimated.

The time for preferential treatment is no more; not for unfortunate refugees, nor for established and powerful athletes seeking further glory.

* Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands

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