Australia’s immigration policy became, over the years, more and more close. Someone will remember the “No Way” campaign that shocked the entire world a bit less than ten years ago, or more recently, someone could have heard the controversies that interested the famous tennis player Novak Djokovic. Beyond the worrying denial in COVID times – not to be underestimated -, it’s interesting to notice how the immigration policy and Djokovic’s case are more related than ever, with a strong interconnection point: the Park Hotel. In order to better understand the situation, let’s analyze with order the Australian’s government position regarding immigration flows.
In 2013, under the government of conservative Tony Abbott, Sovereign Borders (OSB), a border protection operation led by the Australian Defence Force, was set up to stop asylum seekers arriving in Australia by sea. This operation immediately implemented the 'zero tolerance' policy towards illegal arrivals. The election campaign preceding Abbott's victory was full of promises about border protection, assuring citizens that a meticulous operation would stop arrivals. So it was: he launched Sovereign Borders and the immigration minister was renamed Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. At election time, Abbott's policy proposals were based on two foundations: the Regional Deterrence Framework (a key factor in the OSB) and the communications campaign. The RDF program aimed to engage third countries (particularly Indonesia) to prevent boats of asylum seekers from leaving for Australia. For example, the Indonesian community involvement programme included awareness-raising campaigns with a clear message that trafficking people is a criminal activity. Consequently, boat buy-back programmes were stipulated, aimed at encouraging, through incentives, owners of run-down boats to sell them to government officials rather than to traffickers (a scheme that was ridiculed and did not record the purchase of a single boat) and financial support was introduced for wardens and caretakers, who were to provide information to the Indonesian National Police on human trafficking. The Australian government also conducted a rather expensive communication campaign in monetary terms (in the first five months of 2015 alone, more than AU$750,000 was spent) for ads translated into numerous languages and disseminated across all media. The data made it clear that the promises made in the election campaign were kept from the outset: in the first half of 2014, only one boatload of migrants managed to dock on Australian shores.
Operation Sovereign Borders was also accompanied by the 'No Way' commercial, a minute-long video featuring the uniformed commander of the operation, Angus Campbell, delivering a clear message that 'the government has introduced the toughest border control measures ever, we will not make exceptions; the rules apply to everyone without exception: to families, children, unaccompanied, educated, skilled children; you will not make Australia your home'.
The Park Hotel and the Djokovic case
The Australian model, appreciated and preached by Salvini just when he was dealing with the Diciotti case in Italy, basically involves refugees being intercepted at sea and transferred to other islands, in facilities very similar to the Park Hotel where Djokovic stayed. When they enter these facilities, asylum seekers do not know when they will be able to leave, and government agents do not address them by their name, but by a code. ANA020 is Mehdi Ali, who arrived in Australia from Iran at the age of 15, was locked up for eight years without a shadow of basic rights and was not an irregular migrant. Subsequently, the Australian government accepted the evidence entitling Mehdi to papers, although not before those eight years had passed.
The 2022 Australian Open is held from 17th to 30th January and brings together the world's best tennis players in this event; among them, men's tennis star Novak Djokovic, who has never hidden his denialist stance towards the pandemic from the public. Back in 2020, the tennis player stirred up controversy when, during one of the most acute phases in the spread of COVID infections, he organized a commercial tournament during which most of the participants - and spectators - contracted the virus, including Djokovic. In order to enter the country and participate in the Australian Open, the tennis player had to present a certificate of double vaccination. Australia, which as we have seen has a very strict policy in terms of entry at national borders and has a continuous increase in infections, does not allow even those who have tested positive and have recovered from the virus in the last six months to enter the country: the only exceptions are the presentation of valid medical documentation attesting to the pathology that prevents vaccination, documentation that is analyzed and discussed by a team of doctors;
Alternatively, it is compulsory to undergo 14 days of quarantine in a hotel, a fate that also befell Djokovic, whose exemption was not initially considered valid by the Australian government and who therefore had to stay at the Park Hotel, like everyone else.
The Park Hotel is located in Melbourne and to the eye looks like any other building from another era. Inside, however, it contains the stories of many people and families who, for one reason or another, have entered the hotel and have never been able to leave. In Italy many hotels have been used to isolate people infected with COVID, and this solution has also been exploited abroad. In Australia several managers, in times of crisis, have preferred to redirect the use of rooms once reserved for tourists to rent them to the government and lock up those who have symptoms of COVID or are not vaccinated, as well as all those people who do not have the documents to move legally and seek asylum. The Park Hotel is one of them.
This hotel received a lot of media attention last year, when an outbreak broke out and the number of cases in the city soared. The conditions of the structure, on the other hand, have undoubtedly facilitated the spread of the virus: in the hotel the windows open only a few centimeters, the food served does not comply with hygiene standards, and it is not allowed to leave the structure (not even in the event of a fire, of which there were several only last December).
At election time (in Australia there will be a vote next May), the actions of politicians are meticulously weighed by the voters: the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, at the beginning of the Djokovic case, had promised that no exceptions would be contemplated; well, Novak Djokovic was the exception that the Australian government did not contemplate: a Melbourne court accepted the tennis player's medical exemption as valid, thus entitling him to a visa. Public opinion, perhaps already aware of the probable verdict, had already begun to make itself heard in the previous days, especially near the hotel in question. The protests were fuelled by a promise that the Prime Minister had made to the citizens: when at least 70% of the population had been vaccinated, only then would the people locked up be able to leave - a promise that obviously fell apart in the face of the Djokovic case.
Translated By Sara Prunecchi