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Djokovic case exposes Australia's cruel policies

Alistair Walsh
Alistair Walsh
January 9, 2022

Australian politicians have long used their harsh border policies for cheap political tricks. It's time to rethink this fortress approach, says DW's Alistair Walsh.

A billboard depicting Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, on a building in Belgrade, Serbia
Djokovic is only the latest victim of political games on border controlImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance

Novak Djokovic is discovering firsthand the cruelty of Australia's border policies.

He was granted a visa and encouraged to fly in, despite his conspicuous vaccine-skeptical views. And yet, on arrival, the door suddenly slammed shut in a mean-spirited bait-and-switch from Australia.

I suspect that those in power sensed a two-for-one political win in blocking his entry at the last minute.

Alistair Walsh
Alistair Walsh is originally from Western AustraliaImage: Lewis Sanders

Djokovic's unvaccinated presence is seen by many as an insult to the stoic efforts of the people of Melbourne, who spent consecutive months in lockdown and took the vaccine in droves, even those who were hesitant. Blocking his entry was always going to win approval.

This decision could have been made well before his departure. But the last-minute change has allowed for a second political victory here: Manufacturing a miniature border crisis has done wonders to distract from the government's consistent mishandling of the pandemic.

Much-used strategy of cruelty

It's an easy double win. And it follows Australia's well-worn playbook of extracting political capital out of inflicting cruelty at its border.

For decades, Australian politicians on all sides have leveraged the country's border controls as a tool of political manipulation and distraction from domestic blunders.

In a poetic turn, Djokovic found himself trapped in the same hotel as dozens of refugees and asylum-seekers, who are stuck in a decadelong limbo, unable to leave, unable to enter. And their incarceration is a relative luxury compared to the misfortune of others seeking asylum in Australia — thousands of whom have languished in offshore detention centers. All victims of border cruelty.

For a nation of migrants, this obsession with border control seems incongruous. But it has become deeply ingrained in the culture.

The Park Hotel is a detention facility, home also to refugees or asylum seekers who often have spent years in limbo in Australia's strict immigration system.
Djokovic's captivity has brought attention to other victims of harsh border policiesImage: Hamish Blair/AP/picture alliance

Harming its own citizens

So it's no wonder that Australia's instinctive position in the pandemic was to shut down its borders, with no thought given to the human toll.

This worked — for quite a long time, actually. The nation was able to keep COVID out for an impressively long stretch. And the strategy was popular. My compatriots seemed quietly proud of the harsh border policy.

But, as such border policies always do, the shutdown caused pain to so many people.

I, for one, have been unable to see my family for two years now. I still can't. Australia may finally be slowly opening its borders, but Western Australia, where my family lives, remains sealed in.

Australians out in the world were unable to come home without paying tens of thousands of dollars. Migrants living in Australia were unable to leave to visit sick relatives overseas, knowing they could not reenter their newfound homes.

But this was seen as unavoidable collateral damage. Proof the policies were working.

Exposed to the world

I always knew Australia's border policies were cruel. And they are recognized as such across the world now. But Australia's abandonment of its own citizens and its callous separation of families crossed a threshold I thought was unthinkable.

If Djokovic wins his case and is allowed to enter the country, great for him. But the bizarre situation he faced has exposed Australia's Kafkaesque border policies for the world to see.

Australia must use this moment to rethink its fortress approach, and prioritize human well-being over cheap political points.

Edited by: Timothy Jones