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.

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 to cancel visas at his discretion — a power that has been called “godlike” by some immigration experts and even a former 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.

The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia

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A vaccine exemption question. The No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player was refused entry to Australia over questions about a Covid vaccine exemption, but Djokovic challenged the ruling in court and an Australian judge granted him entry into the country.

How it started. The standoff began when Djokovic, a vaccine skeptic, received an exemption that would allow him to defend his Australian Open title. Upon arrival, federal officials said he did not meet the requirements for entry because he was unvaccinated, and canceled his visa.

The bigger picture. Amid a difficult time in Australia’s fight against Covid, the standoff has highlighted the growing public outcry against high-profile vaccine skeptics like Djokovic when they want to play by different rules than everyone else.

What happens next. Australian officials hinted they may make a new attempt to cancel Djokovic’s visa, even as the tennis champion, freed from detention, returned to the court. The standoff also presages headwinds he may face if he attempts to travel the world without being vaccinated.

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.

Australia and New Zealand

Steve Johnson in 2016 close to the site where his brother, Scott, died in Sydney, Australia, in 1988.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times
  • Australian Man Is Convicted of Killing Gay American in 1980s. The death of Scott Johnson, a young mathematician who was found at the bottom of a cliff, was initially ruled a suicide. His brother had pressed investigators to re-examine the case.

  • A Divisive Figure Around the World, Djokovic Is a Hero in Serbia. Many feel a personal connection and pride with the tennis star, even if they do not agree with his decisions to stay unvaccinated.

  • With Djokovic’s Status in Limbo, So Is the Australian Open. Thursday brought no resolution in the star’s duel with the government, even as the tournament’s draw placed him (for now) at the top of the bracket.

  • ‘Genevieve Is Pitching Because She Can Get Outs’. At 17, Genevieve Beacom became the first woman to play for one of Australia’s top professional baseball teams. She hopes her next stop is college ball in the United States.

  • How the ‘Djokovic Affair’ Came Back to Bite Australia’s Prime Minister. Scott Morrison thought he had a political winner. Now, with an election looming, Australians debate their government’s fairness and competence.

  • Novak Djokovic’s Fight to Play Tennis Could Be Just Starting. The days-long battle to enter Australia to defend his Open title presages headwinds he may face if he attempts to travel the world without being vaccinated for Covid-19.

  • Novak Djokovic Can Remain in Australia, Judge Rules. Australian officials hinted they may make a new attempt to cancel Djokovic’s visa, even as the tennis champion, freed from detention, returned to the court.

  • 52 Places for a Changed World. The 2022 list highlights places around the globe where travelers can be part of the solution.

  • At an Australian Hotel, Djokovic Is Not the Only Cause of Controversy. The tennis star is quarantining in a Melbourne hotel where asylum seekers have been held for over a year, under a program that has been widely criticized.

  • Fossils of a Prehistoric Rainforest Hide in Australia’s Rusted Rocks. The find suggests overlooked rocks across the continent may contain more fossilized surprises.

  • Revival for a Native New Zealand Group Pushed Close to Cultural Death. The Moriori, whose history of peaceful isolation was shattered by violent subjugation, are fighting to establish themselves as a thriving people alongside the Maori.

Around the Times

Workers preparing to spray disinfectant outside a shopping mall in Xi’an, China, on Tuesday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • The Army of Millions Who Enforce China’s Zero-Covid Policy, at All Costs. As the troubled lockdown in Xi’an has shown, many Chinese people remain willing to work diligently toward the government’s goal of eliminating the virus, no matter the consequences.

  • Murder, Torture, Rape: A Landmark Conviction on State Violence in Syria.A German court found a former Syrian intelligence officer guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison — a first after a decade of war.

  • Selling Melania Trump, One NFT at a Time. A year after leaving the White House, the former first lady tests the water for her brand.

  • Animation That’s More Than Kids’ Stuff. A handful of animated features gaining attention this awards season take a more mature approach.

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