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Novak Djokovic completes a swing during a practice session, the tennis ball is floating in front of him

Novak Djokovic was detained for five days – refugees in the same hotel have been there for years

When Novak Djokovic arrived at a Melbourne airport to compete in the 2022 Australian Open, his next stop was not the tennis court but rather the Park hotel, a hotel-turned-immigration detention centre. The Australian government’s reasoning was simple: Djokovic did not meet the country’s vaccination requirements.

During Djokovic’s five-day detention, his family compared his treatment to that of a prisoner, stating: “He is not a criminal but an athlete.”

Djokovic’s visa debacle and short stay in the Park hotel is a stark contrast to the plight of the 30-plus asylum seekers also detained there. Journalists flocked to the hotel to cover the story of the detained tennis player, but paid little attention to Djokovic’s neighbours, some of whom have been there for more than two years.

Whether in Melbourne or the country’s notorious offshore centres, immigration detention, for many, is indefinite. The Park hotel and the experience of its “residents” are just one example of how states use time and space to reinforce their borders.

The waiting game

Time is a key tool in cementing borders. When states make refugees wait, whether through delayed processing or spatial isolation, refugees no longer control their own time or movement. They must wait on someone else for permission: to move freely, to work, to study to plan ahead. In the UK, asylum seekers wait an average of one to three years for a response to their asylum claim. In the meantime, they cannot legally work.

Keeping refugees waiting indefinitely (often in the name of care) is how many states have managed to avoid legal obligations to protect refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Through unending bureaucracy and unexplained detentions, European states are well versed in quietly wasting refugees’ time, sometimes by housing them in centres with humanitarian or otherwise friendly facades – not unlike a hotel that doubles as a detention centre.

Read more: Novak Djokovic: the legal problem of having one rule for some, another for everyone else

This is the case in Jordan, where a Syrian refugee camp approaches its eighth birthday. Azraq camp has been lauded as the model refugee camp, featuring neat rows of caravans that depict order and stability but disguise the fact that refugees are under constant watch. Some “residents” of Azraq’s high-security section, Village 5, have been confined to this corner of the camp since 2016.

In 2018, Village 5 refugee Aya told me her wait felt like a “lifetime”. At the time, processing the almost 10,000 refugees in Village 5 was predicted to take another two years. Four years later – two lifetimes – Aya is still there.

Every day, Aya has two choices: to continue to wait or to request repatriation to Syria. While she fills each day with cash-for-work activities in her neighbourhood NGO centre, the years slip away, and her future career plans along with them. Many of her neighbours have stopped indulging in future plans.

The camp has not only claimed their mobility but also stolen their time.

A man and a young child bang on the window from inside the Park Hotel while protesters carrying a banner reading Abolish Detention Centres stand outside.
The Novak Djokovic saga has drawn attention to the plight of refugees detained in Melbourne’s Park hotel. Joel Carrett / EPA-EFE

For refugees who made it to the UK, which has increasingly taken inspiration from Australia’s hostile immigration policies, the wait is similarly precarious. Bayan Almasri, a Syrian master’s student at King’s College London, arrived in the UK after a nine month journey from Jordan, which involved months of waiting in Germany and France.

But he says the wait to receive asylum only really began the minute he set foot on British soil in June 2016:

Some people waited two years … so I had no idea how long the wait would be. Every day when you wake up, you just think, “When will I have the right to stay here?” It’s an everyday question.

For refugees, time is a painfully invisible border.

While Djokovic may have briefly shared with them an experience in detention, it was just that: brief. His visa was processed and revoked twice in a span of 10 days. And he could be sure from day one that his future would remain intact regardless of the government’s ruling.

This fast-tracked processing is a luxury not afforded to asylum seekers. And indeed, most visa applicants may wait weeks, months, or even years for someone to decide what their future will look like. Such applications are seldom treated with the urgency of Djokovic’s tennis match.

Djokovic’s wait is over, even though he could not play in the Australian Open. For refugees around the world, the waiting game – one they never signed up for – continues.

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