How Djokovic Spurred Debate on the Fairness of Border Policies

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A steady trickle of passers-by stopped in front of the Park Hotel in Melbourne on Saturday, pausing to take photos, read the chalk writing scrawled on the building — “free them all” and “30 children locked inside here and tortured for 3,092 days” — or peer up, trying to catch a glimpse of Novak Djokovic, the tennis star who had been detained inside.

Camped across the street, preparing to write an article about how Mr. Djokovic’s situation had drawn attention to the plight of the refugees and asylum seekers held inside, I caught snippets of their conversations.

“Did you know they’ve been in there for nine years?” one woman exclaimed to her companion.”

“I never knew about this,” a man told one of the dozen refugee advocates who were protesting outside the hotel.

This seems to be a common theme over the past week: surprise domestically and abroad at the strict conditions of Australia’s border control and detention system, which Mr. Djokovic’s visa and vaccination saga has thrown into the spotlight.

With the announcement on Friday afternoon that Alex Hawke, Australia’s immigration minister, had canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa again, this is the first time that many of us have been exposed to the inner workings of a system where you can be given 20 minutes to explain why your visa shouldn’t be canceled, with limited legal assistance, and to the wide range of powers held by the immigration minister.

The way Mr. Djokovic was treated in the border control system was not unusual, said Mary Anne Kenny, an associate law professor at Murdoch University, but “unlike a lot of other people who come through that system, he was able to get hold of a lawyer and challenge it.”

The immigration minister’s wide-ranging discretionary powers around visas were initially intended to be used in circumstances where a strict and narrow application of the law might lead to unfair outcomes, she said. For example, it could be used to grant visas to asylum seekers who did not technically fall under the definition of a refugee but had extenuating circumstances, such as being stateless.

But over time, she said, successive immigration ministers of all political stripes have increased the powers and used them for political ends, particularly in the past 20 years following the introduction of Australia’s hard-line border policy against asylum seekers arriving by sea.

“We probably have some of the strictest border controls and detention regime of any country on the planet,” said Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the department of immigration.

But at the same time, he added, we’re a nation of immigrants, with over 30 percent of Australians born in another country — a much higher percentage than other countries like the United States and Canada. “It’s an odd dichotomy,” he said.

Australia relies on backpackers and Pacific islands laborers for much of our seasonal farm work force and temporary visa holders to fill jobs in sectors like hospitality, construction and health care. But the country regularly gets criticism for its treatment of asylum seekers — previously placing them on remote islands like Manus and Nauru, and now in detention hotels.

On Saturday, some observers outside the Park Hotel, like Bobby Tomasevic, 55, were thinking about fairness — both for Mr. Djokovic and for the asylum seekers and refugees locked inside.

“It gives you a sour feeling,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Now for our stories of the week.


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