Politics

‘Heartbreaking’: refugees left behind while Novak Djokovic’s supporters celebrate court win | Novak Djokovic

Jubilant Serbian Australians have taken their celebrations away from the detention hotel their beloved Novak Djokovic had been held in for days, leaving behind deflated refugees and their supporters on Monday.

Since December 2020 refugee advocates have stood outside the former hotel every day, trying desperately to bring awareness to the plight of the 30-plus men stuck indefinitely inside.

When the world’s No 1 male tennis player unexpectedly joined refugees and asylum seekers inside, it brought a new group of protesters and an international media spotlight.

But that unlikely alliance ended on Monday night, as a court ordered Djokovic’s release from immigration detention after quashing the Australian government’s decision to cancel his visa.

To his fans, their hero had won a David and Goliath battle for freedom. They were there to party.

They carried Serbian flags, cheering “Novak! Novak! Novak!” before heading down to Federation Square to continue the celebrations.

Across the park, the mood was more sombre, as advocates for the refugees gathered together. Occasionally they would chant “free them all” but mostly they stood in a solemn silence.

They’ve spent the last five days trying to springboard off the media attention on Djokovic to raise awareness about the other men stuck inside.

They’ve climbed on the building, used chalk spray to make huge signs and arranged media interviews with refugees. Some have even been arrested – and now as Djokovic walks free they fear the men will be forgotten.

Gemma Harben had been protesting at the centre since long before the tennis star arrived – she said the attention had made the refugees feel hopeful.

“They’ve felt forgotten and ignored for so long and finally people turn up, it might not be for them, but people are outside the building,” Harben said.

Refugee advocate Gemma Harben outside the Park hotel in Carlton on Monday evening.
Refugee advocate Gemma Harben outside the Park hotel in Carlton on Monday evening. Photograph: Cait Kelly

“They’re on the international news. To see this kind of attention disappear again will be heartbreaking.”

For them, the decision to let Djokovic free showed what money and power can do – a win against Australia’s notoriously strict immigration laws.

“I hope they reassess the rules and let everyone out.”

Harben said she hoped the Djokovic saga would make people realise “they’re all human beings”.

That the tennis champion could end up in a basic hotel next to men who have been locked up, some for nine years, showed we are not that different from each other, she said.

At the small protest on Monday night, one refugee advocate interrupted some of the supporters’ celebrations to ask if they would all come back tomorrow for the refugees.

“Yes,” they answered, but the advocate wasn’t convinced.

Djokovic supporters argue he has been a pawn in Australia’s political game, used by the federal government to win votes.

“There was no basis to hold him and they did it anyway,” Neb Jovanovic, who was draped in a Serbian flag, said.

“We knew the government had their secret agenda behind it, but he has pulled through – that’s what he always does.

“It’s a step in the right direction for freedom.”

Neb Jovanovic (far left) and other Djokovic supporters outside the hotel on Monday night.
Neb Jovanovic (far left) and other Djokovic supporters outside the hotel on Monday night. Photograph: Cait Kelly

When asked if they will see the tennis star play at the Australian Open, there was a pause. As a matter of principle he should pull out they said.

“If I was him I wouldn’t do it,” Jovanovic said.

Watching on was Adnam, who did not give his last name.

He has been in detention since he was 15. He is now 24.

Describing the conditions in the hotel, he says he is never called by his name, only “detainee” or by his number. There is no fresh air in their room and he doesn’t often mingle with the others – everyone is often too depressed to leave their room, he said.

“It’s terrifying and bizarre. You’re always treated as a suspect. You are treated worse than a criminal.”

He said the crowds outside the window the last few days and the fact they were sharing a building with Djokovic had given them hope.

“It does warm our hearts. It will help us fight through this unfair environment and give us the strength to fight back this cruel immigration system.”

Djokovic’s detention brought two very different groups together with very different kinds of protesting. The tennis star’s supporters sang, danced, lit candles in the evening and joked with police.

Refugee advocates used megaphones, drums and chants to get their point across.

While each gathered outside the Park hotel for their own reasons, there were enough similarities to unite them, if only briefly.

“I feel so ignorant,” one Djokovic supporter said as she was leaving on Thursday. “I came here for him and found out they’ve been locked up nine years. It’s so wrong.”

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