The furor over whether or not Novak Djokovic will or will not be allowed to compete in the Australian Open has pitted the Serbian tennis star and vaccine skeptic against the government of Australia. But Djokovic is no victim and the government is no hero.
The focus – and noise – surrounding the battle of Djokovic versus the Australian government is a distraction from the plight of thousands of asylum seekers that have been denied entry into Australia and who are herded onto island prison camps run by private security firms. When it comes to Australia and migration, we should be focusing on their plight, not that of rich and privileged sporting stars.
For the past decade, Australia enthusiastically implemented a zero-tolerance approach towards asylum seekers trying to reach its shores. In brief, Australia captures undocumented people who reach the country as well as those attempting to enter via boat. It then transports them to privately operated processing centres in third countries, most notoriously Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, with whom Australia has bilateral agreements.
Once in detention, asylum seekers have three options: return to their original state (irrespective of harms they may face in doing so); find a third country that will accept them; or stay in the camps on in the hope of having their claim processed by Australia. If detained asylum seekers choose to remain, they may be imprisoned at these centres indefinitely. As the government admits: “there is no limit in law or policy to the length of time for which a person may be detained.”
None of this saves Australia a dime. Expenditures for its offshore detention facilities run in the billions of dollars each year and the average cost to detain an asylum seeker in one of the island facilities costs Australia about twice that of an onshore detainee.
The conditions in the camps can be deadly. Consider the story of Reza Barati, who made it to Australia in 2013. The 23-year-old Iranian Kurd’s arrival on Australian soil came just days after the adoption of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which permits Australian authorities to transfer asylum seekers like him from Australia to Manus Island. Just six months after his transfer, he was killed by guards during a riot.
Reza Barati was “nothing more than an ordinary youth with the kind of dreams that every single young man from every single culture has for his future.” But he died at the hands of private guards hired by Australia to control the detainees. Witnesses claimed that at least 13 guards kicked Reza in the head. One dropped a large stone onto Reza’s head while he lay on the floor. Two private security guards from Papa New Guinea were eventually convicted of Reza’s murder; guards from Australia and other countries have never been prosecuted for their involvement.
Not all abuses in offshore detention centres are as blatant as Barati’s death, but they are no less devastating. In 2017, Nai Jit Lam, UNHCR’s Deputy Regional Representative in Canberra, traveled to Manus Island and called what he saw there “a man-made and entirely preventable humanitarian crisis” and “a damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”. According to a former migrant detention manager: “In Australia, this facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.”
On Manus and Nauru, detained children draw self-portraits of themselves in cages, tears pouring down their faces. Some refugees remain for years, in an encampment that looks more like an open-air Guantanamo Bay than a migrant processing centre. Human rights groups have described an “epidemic of self-harm” on the island as well as an institutional failure to prevent violent attacks on asylum seekers by the local population.
Children on the island suffer from high levels of mental health issues while the government of Australia fights in court to refuse them medical care. Because these harms occur in privately operated facilities, accountability efforts are made more difficult; justice for migrant and human rights violations are made more distant, just as the government of Australia wants them to be.
Many international lawyers believe the conditions in Australia’s offshore detention centres amount to an international crime. In 2017, a communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was submitted in which it was argued that the harms committed against asylum seekers by Australia and its corporate contractors in offshore detention facilities – including imprisonment, torture, deportation, and persecution – constituted crimes against humanity.
In 2020, the ICC Prosecutor replied that while the violations did not meet the Court’s gravity threshold and the Court could not proceed with an investigation, Australia’s regime of offshore detention centres constituted “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” and other possible crimes against humanity.
Thanks to the work of advocates, in 2017, Australia was also ordered to pay compensation to asylum seekers held in its offshore detention centres. The decision came in response to a class action suit on behalf of 1,905 asylum seekers on Manus Island who alleged negligence and illegal detention on the part of Australia. Further class actions are proceeding through Australian courts.
Djokovic may have run afoul of Australia’s border-crossing rules due to legitimate COVID-19 control measures, but what he went through is not even a fraction of what asylum seekers trying to make it to Australia have suffered. In a twist of irony, throughout this saga, Djokovic has been held in a Melbourne hotel where some asylum seekers have spent years, in what his mother called prison-like conditions. Djokovic could leave; these migrants cannot.
Around the world, people on the move face horrific conditions as a direct result of the policies of states who see them as a scourge to control through private security companies and a nuisance to push away into offshore camps with deplorable conditions. Australia’s migrant detention centres are embodiments of this violent, discriminatory, and illegal approach.
More asylum seekers likely suffer and die because of these draconian policies than any inherent danger in migrating itself. It is these people who are the real victims of the Australian government. They deserve our attention and compassion, not the Djokovic’s of the world.
A version of this article was originally published at Al Jazeera Opinions.