The Djokovic saga has thrust Australia’s ‘cruel’ treatment of asylum seekers onto the world stage

The detention of Novak Djokovic has inadvertently shone a light on the 33 asylum seekers at the Park Hotel.

The detention of Novak Djokovic has inadvertently shone a light on the 33 asylum seekers at the Park Hotel. Photo: AAP

Adnan Choopani fled Iran as a 15-year-old and headed for Australia. He’s now 24, and has been locked up in “hell” by the Australian government this whole time – nine years and counting.

After more than six years of detention on Nauru, Mr Choopani was transferred to onshore detention to receive medical treatment, before ending up at the Park Hotel in mid-2021.

On January 6, the 33 asylum seekers currently detained at the hotel were joined by world No.1 tennis player Novak Djokovic and, for the first time, their plight was thrust onto the world stage.

As protesters gathered outside the hotel, The New York Times called them a “disparate group” of Djokovic fans and asylum seeker advocates.

Asylum seekers at the Park Hotel

Adnan Coopani at a detention centre before he was transferred to the Park Hotel in 2021. Photo: Supplied

Al Jazeera said the ordeal “highlights [the] plight of asylum seekers in Australia”.

One Serbian tabloid even called the building a “hotel of horrors”.

For Mr Choopani, that’s an apt description.

“We are suffering from very serious mental health and physical health issues,” he told The New Daily.

“The others and myself are suffering from PTSD because of detention.”

For him, Australia’s system of indefinite immigration detention amounts to “hell run by professional torturers”.

It’s a similar story from all of the detained asylum seekers at the Park Hotel.

One of them, 23-year-old Medhi Ali, has even called for Djokovic to highlight their situation to the rest of the world.

Almost all of the people detained in the Park Hotel have been classified as legitimate refugees by the UNHCR, but because they attempted to enter Australia by boat, the government has vowed never to let them in.

In Mr Choopani’s case, he cannot return home because he’s a member of the persecuted Ahwazi Arab minority.

Advocates say the conditions in the hotel demonstrate how inhumane Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is, but even these conditions are better than on Nauru or Manus Island.

At the Park Hotel, detainees are largely confined to their rooms, they can’t open their windows for fresh air, and they’re subject to arbitrary headcounts in the middle of the night.

Some of them, including Mr Choopani, have even found maggots and mould in the food given to them.

And despite the government using the hotel to detain Djokovic as a potential threat to public health, the detained asylum seekers had already dealt with a COVID outbreak inside the building that was exacerbated by the harsh conditions.

This memory in particular remains a lingering fear for many of the detainees as Omicron cases skyrocket.

“It’s just been cruel disaster after disaster,” said Chris Breen, an activist with the Refugee Action Collective of Victoria.

The group is one of several advocacy groups that have been protesting outside the hotel.

Asylum seeker activists at the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

Advocates for asylum seekers used the international spotlight to call for their freedom. Photo: Getty

But unlike the outrage over Djokovic’s detention, this fight has been going on for years.

“The biggest thing for the 33 refugees – and there’s probably around 70 Medevac refugees around Australia – is their indefinite detention,” Mr Breen told TND.

“That’s the thing that really destroys them – that length of time and not knowing when they will get out.”

After lawyering up and having the judge “bend over backwards” to accommodate such a timely and high-profile case, Djokovic was able to walk free on Monday night.

For the 33 others still detained inside the Park Hotel, this is a kind of special treatment they can only dream of.

Mr Choopani’s message for the international community just now tuning in to this decade-long limbo is blunt.

“Don’t copy this system,” he said.

“This system is cruel, and this system is inhuman.”

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