The detention of world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic has drawn attention to the plight of scores of asylum seekers who are housed in the same Australian hotel being used as a makeshift immigration detention facility.
Just 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from the luxurious city hotels where most of the other players at the Australian Open are staying, the Park Hotel is a grey five-storey building with locked windows in an inner city suburb.
Eight police guarded the entrance on Friday. Spray painted in bright yellow on the facade were the words “FREE THEM ALL”.
The arrival of one of the world’s wealthiest athletes led to incongruous scenes outside the hotel, with members of the Serbian expatriate community draped in the national flag and playing traditional music joining refugee activists in protests
Inside on the second floor, one above Djokovic, are 30 men from several countries who were evacuated for medical treatment in 2020 from Australian detention centres in the impoverished South Pacific island nations Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
“We are stuck in our room. There is no fresh air. We don’t have any place for training. There is no gym here. It’s very hard,” said Hossein Latifi, a 32-year-old Iranian who was detained on Nauru in 2013
For decades, Australia has had a mandatory detention policy for anyone arriving without a visa, and to deter people arriving by boat, it set up offshore detention centres in Nauru and on PNG’s Manus Island. Manus was shut in 2016 after being deemed illegal, while the Nauru centre remains open.
In response to critics, the government in 2019 began allowing critically ill refugees to be temporarily transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
Latifi was brought to Australia in 2020 and initially held in another facility before he was moved to the Park Hotel four months ago. He said he does not know how long he will be held there or where he might go next.
“We are refugees, we are innocent people – we’ve not committed any crime. They just keep me like hostage here,” Latifi told Reuters by phone from his room, where he videoed a group of around 100 people across the street calling for Djokovic and the refugees to be freed.
MAGGOTS AND MOULD
Some of the group of asylum seekers have been held at the hotel for almost two years, with several complaining about conditions, including poor catering.
“It’s such low quality and we’ve also been served with maggots and mould in our bread,” said Adnan Choopani, another Iranian who was first detained nine years ago when he was 15.
The hotel is also being used to quarantine travellers who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Worsening the situation, there were several fires in the building on Dec. 23, damaging the third and fourth floors. During an evacuation, detainees and COVID-19 cases were held together resulting in some detainees becoming infected, Latifi said.
Australia’s Border Force did not immediately respond to questions about conditions at the hotel.
Choopani and Latifi both wished Djokovic well, although Latifi noted the tennis superstar was facing being held for “just a few days”, rather than nine years.
Choopani said he drew some strength from the spotlight the famous new resident had placed on the hotel.
“I don’t wish Australian detention for nobody,” Choopani said. “Novak, you are not alone. You have lots of supporters, we love you, we want to see you succeed … we wish you all luck and wish you freedom, like how we wish for ourselves.”