While Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is in detention, refugee rights activists have taken to opportunity to protest the detention of refugees brought to Australia under the Medevac law in 2019.
About 200 people gathered outside the hotel-prison in Carlton, in a protest organised by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) on January 9. The majority were there to call for all the remaining 36 refugees to be freed and be given permanent visas so they can start to rebuild their lives.
RAC spokesperson David Glanz said whether Djokovic wins or loses his court battle “he’ll be back on the circuit, making big money, doing what he does best, being a top level class tennis player”. If you are a big sports star and detained, it’s an “inconvenience and a disruption” to your play and income, Glanz said. The immigration minister’s “God powers” gives them the ability to “undemocratically lock people up and throw away the key”.
The Park Hotel is no longer a quarantine hotel. In 2020, under the name Rydges, it became the site and source of large COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Now, it's a place where people get locked up and fed food containing maggots and bread growing mould, by companies taking hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the Australian government to supposedly look after these refugees,” Glantz said.
As the “Human Zoo” sign, displayed by refugees suggested, they are being treated worse than animals.
Adnan Choopani, a refugee from Iran who sought asylum when he was 15 years old in 2013, told the rally from inside the Park Hotel that all 36 have been “determined as refugees and have guaranteed documents to prove that”.
“In this detention facility, they don’t even call us by our names, they call us ‘detainee’. They want to break our spirit. The federal government is spending $4.3 million on each person, for each year, to hold onto offshore notorious detention centres, Nauru and Manus Island.”
Medhi, Choopani’s cousin, who arrived at the same age said he has been considered a “threat” because he “fled his home and came by boat”. Most people who arrived here by boat since 2013 have been released, he said, “except for a handful of us who are being used as political pawns”.
“Let's say coming by boat after 2013 is a crime. We’ve done our time for that — it’s been nine years already although we have never committed a crime in our whole life.”
Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe addressed the rally saying that more than 500 Black deaths in the prison system shows “the colonial system was set up to not only kill us, but to kill our brothers and sisters … who have been welcomed by every Traditional Owner across this country”.
Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles, who was isolating, sent a message of solidarity. “In recent days, the eyes of the world have been on this place. It shouldn’t have taken a tennis player’s visa cancellation for this to happen. But this must shine a light on the senseless cruelty that has been taking place for years and it cannot continue.”
There is a growing number of people, known as “501s” in detention centres, who currently face deportation under section 501 of the Migration Act. They are non-citizens, people who have finished a prison sentence for a crime, and awaiting deportation. Others are refugees who are said to have failed the “character test” because they have allegedly committed a crime.
Instead of being released into the community after serving their time they have been detained in places like Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA).
Joey Tangaloa Taualii has been imprisoned in MITA for nine months and has been living in Australia since he was three months old. The now 50-year-old father told the rally, via phone, that the conditions are “worse than prison”.
“If I have a migraine today or I am feeling suicidal ... you need to fill out a request form and a nurse will come and see you in two or three days. In some cases, it’s too bloody late.” He said even though a “judge and the parole board deemed us 501s safe and rehabilitated to return to society”, the minister has overridden the ruling.
He said he was being kicked out of the only country he had ever known.
Joy, a refugee from Bangladesh told the rally from inside Park Hotel: “When I came here in 2013, I had dreams. I don’t need to win the Australian Open tennis, but I had dreams. I wanted to build up my career. I wanted to have a beautiful family. Today, we want justice for our 10 years [in detention]. Please open the windows, please open the doors. Please set us free.”