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As Djokovic Leaves Australian Detention Hotel, Refugees Held There Urge World Not to Forget Them

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As an Australian judge allows unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic to be released from immigration detention amid controversy over his COVID vaccine exemption, we look at how his case has intensified international scrutiny over Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees jailed in the same rundown hotel. “No one is telling us when we get out of this indefinite detention,” says Mehdi Ali, an Iranian refugee currently detained by the Australian government at the Park Hotel in Melbourne. We also speak with former Australian soccer player Craig Foster, who advocates for asylum seekers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Australia, where a judge has reinstated unvaccinated Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa and released him from immigration detention. Australian government authorities say they could still intervene to revoke the visa and prevent the defending champion from taking part in the Australian Open, set to start next week as the country faces a record-breaking COVID-19 surge.

Djokovic’s case has intensified international scrutiny over the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Australia. Today we look at the people he leaves behind in the facility where he was detained. Many are wondering if they will ever leave the rundown Park Hotel in Melbourne that has been holding about 30 refugees for at least a year. This is refugee Mohammed Joy, a refugee, speaking to protesters at the Park Hotel Sunday.

MOHAMMED JOY: My name is Joy. I am a refugee from Bangladesh. I am one of 33 men living in this Park prison torture center — well, 34 now, because on Thursday Novak Djokovic came to join us in our prison. We are sorry that he has been detained, but we ask you: Why does it taken presence of the celebrity to bring attention to our plight? He is just a human being like us. Mr. Djokovic, will you speak out for us when you are released to get on with your life? … Will you tell the world how we have been at the mercy of Australians’ [inaudible] immigration system for 10 years?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Melbourne, at the Park so-called hotel, we’re joined by Mehdi Ali, an Iranian refugee who’s been held in detention by Australian authorities for nine years. He’s currently there at the Park Hotel, tweeted last Friday, on his 24th birthday, quote, “It’s so sad that so many journalists contacted me yesterday to ask me about Djokovic. I’ve been in a cage for 9 years, I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is that. Pretending to care by asking me how I am and then straight away asking questions about Djokovic.” Also with us is Craig Foster, former Australian national soccer team — national team soccer player who advocates on behalf of asylum seekers.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mehdi, let’s begin with you. I’m not going to ask you about Djokovic, who’s left the Park Hotel now. I want to ask about you and how you ended up at the Park Hotel. You are only 24. You’ve been in detention for almost, what, nine years? Tell us how you ended up there.

MEHDI ALI: Thank you for having me and giving me the opportunity. Although I had a really long journey, which is a — it was a tragedy and full of trauma, drama, madness. I had such a sad journey, to be honest, since I came to Australia, which — the first day that I arrived by boat at the 22nd of July, 2013, and basically they gave me a number, and that was my identity until now. And since then until now, I’ve been in detention in onshore and offshore processing center. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who don’t understand when you say offshore processing centers, explain what happens in Australia. Where are the islands where refugees like you are kept?

MEHDI ALI: Indeed. The offshore processing center was a policy made by the Australian authority to send people, whoever is coming by boat after 2013, 19 July, 2013 — never going to resettle in Australia, and they send them to offshore processing center. Though the majority of people, I could say 90% of people, that came by boat after 19 July, they’ve been resettled in Australia community by different types of visas, in different countries. And there’s just dozens of us left, which we’re still in detention, and we don’t know why. I don’t know why. It could be for the sake of a policy, so they can point their fingers at us as sacrifices, and no one giving us any deadline and no one telling us when we get out of this indefinite detention.

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been there at the Park Hotel?

MEHDI ALI: Couple of months.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Craig Foster why you’ve taken up this issue of asylum refugees. You’re a former footballer, a soccer player, but you are front and center right now in seeing this is what has to be focused on.

CRAIG FOSTER: If there’s any positive, if you like, from the saga that Novak Djokovic has just been through, it is that at least there’s been more scrutiny around the world, but, as importantly, actually, in Australia. It’s incredible to think that any Australians can still say that they didn’t know that people are here in hotels right in the heart of our capital cities. Mehdi’s languishing in Melbourne on Swanston Street in Carlton, in one of our key inner-city suburbs of our second-largest city right now, has been there for months. Others have been there for well in excess of a year. And all of them have been either on Nauru or Manus prior to that for six, seven years. So they’re heading, in July, into the anniversary of nine years of being detained. They are refugees. That means they have — you know, their status has been recognized, through what is a terribly onerous system, particularly in Australia, given the politicization of this. And it’s horrific, what has occurred to them. So, you know, a sports star being in town — in fact, being in the same hotel — has at least provided some visibility for them.

Why have I advocated? Well, because we all should. It’s an outrage. And the saga in the last three or four days with Novak Djokovic being there just highlights, you know, the privilege that many of us have, including famous tennis stars or athletes of all kinds, the difference in the treatment that they have and the lack of authority that Australian courts have to actually let Mehdi out, simply because the Australian government has politicized him and others so badly that they’ve stripped the courts of all rights under the Immigration Act to free them.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk, because Mehdi wasn’t there last year when the facility gained notoriety — looking at an Al Jazeera piece — when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated, maggots allegedly found in the food. Talk about this place that the media will now no longer focus on because Djokovic has left.

CRAIG FOSTER: Exactly. Essentially, what’s occurred is that particularly this group of people, but immigrants and especially asylum seekers and refugees over the last nine years, and even previous to that — Australia has always had a very complicated immigration history. And on a number of occasions, whether it’s immigration ministers, governments and prime ministers, including the current, have used different groups, different cultural groups, through the decades — and in this respect, asylum seekers, refugees — to demonize them, to attack them, to trigger a section of the Australian community, simply for the purchasing of votes through the degradation of innocent lives.

We’ve had around 13 of these men who have died, one of whom self-immolated on the Pacific island of Nauru, which Australia essentially uses as an offshore prison. There was a Medevac Act, which was instituted against the government’s wishes some years ago, which meant that people who were in immediate and grave need of medical treatment — this is how bad it’s become here in Australia in relation to Mehdi and his cohort — grave need of medical treatment, severe physical and particularly psychological, mental health issues, as you would imagine, being imprisoned on an island for so very, very long, that they had to be brought to Australia. An independent medical panel said that that was — you know, treatment was necessary. And the kind of associations with what Novak Djokovic has just endured, many, including how politicized his case has also become, but also because of this issue of medical treatment, they were then brought to Australia.

And essentially, because the Australian government had said that they would never settle here, for political reasons, they have set about mistreating them to the maximum degree they possibly can in order to try and force them home. They’ve offered them money to go. Of course, these are refugees. And that means if they go home, they’re going to be persecuted, and many would actually die. And the Australian government and most Australians aren’t concerned about that, and therefore you’re are talking about horrible food and no medical treatment. You know, we’ve seen people with abscesses in their teeth, in their stomach. We’ve got massive mental health, an epidemic among all of this cohort, and they’re simply given Panadol and told to move on. They’re not allowed out of the hotel. They’re locked up 23 hours a day.

In fact, even protesters were outside trying to raise the voice — relatively small numbers given we’ve got 26 million people here. And so, the Australian government came and put a kind of black cellophane on the outside of Mehdi and others’ windows so that the protesters can’t see them. In another hotel up in Brisbane — it’s been going on all around the country — the government actually built a wall so that the protesters couldn’t see the refugees, and vice versa.

To intern, imprison and essentially physically and mentally torture a refugee, it’s costing the Australian taxpayer around half a million dollars per year. And if Mehdi and others — who present no risk to anyone, clearly — were out in community, it would be somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000 Australia dollars. That’s the price of the political votes and the use of Mehdi and others’ life that has been going on here for a very considerable amount of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Mehdi, so you have black cellophane over your window right now? Can you talk about what your demands are and what would happen if you were returned to Iran, why you insist on leaving?

MEHDI ALI: Well, I can’t really tell you about the details why I cannot go back, but I can tell you that I’m a refugee. I have a refugee status by two countries and the U.N. itself. And I came when I was 15 years old. And do you think that I tolerate torture and tolerate misery and tolerate no education, no proper healthcare? I witnessed a man burned himself alive in front of me.

AMY GOODMAN: You witnessed a man burning himself alive?

MEHDI ALI: And he was on fire, and he was screaming. He was shouting. And I saw him. And he ended up in the hospital, and he died. Another friend of mine, he attempted suicide. Children were detained in tents. Women got raped.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope to go on? You’ve been in Australian detention now for nine years, as you sit there in the Park so-called hotel, the detention facility in Melbourne. What are you hoping for?

MEHDI ALI: Well, my hope is I survived. Me, personally, I was about to die through my journey a few times. Like, I was really close to die, and I didn’t, because I’m lucky or unlucky. I’m not sure what. The hope is, like, I think when I die, you know, the ones who are loving me are going to miss me. So, I guess, for the ones that they love me, I’m trying to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to court? You are seeking political asylum. You’re a refugee seeking political asylum in Australia?

MEHDI ALI: I’m not actually applying for asylum in Australia, because I’m a refugee already. I have granted two status. I have granted two status that I’m a refugee, and by U.N. itself. And our case is different. We are offshore people. We are political sacrifices, for the sake of politicians, for the sake of policy, for the sake of private companies, which they’re making so much money out of this. And for other reasons, they’re keeping us here without no explanation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time. We will continue to follow what happens to refugees in Australia, not to mention what happens to asylum seekers in the United States and around the world. Mehdi Ali is an Iranian refugee detained at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, Australia. He has been detained on and offshore for nine years. He came to Australia when he was 15 years old, he began his journey. Craig Foster, former Australia football player, footballer, a national team soccer player, who advocates on behalf of asylum seekers. Thank you both so much for being with us.

Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, it’s the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo prison, and we will speak with a former prisoner.

But next up, we’ll talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic, about how hospitals are in serious trouble as Omicron drives an unprecedented surge in infections. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Love Waltz,” performed by our previous guest, Mehdi Ali, and Susie Bishop. Mehdi did his recording while in detention at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, Australia.

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