Novak Djokovic’s case brings back talk of Australia’s immigration policies

By Sydney Joa, 11th Grade

Novak Djokovic’s chances of winning his 10th Australian Open championship, a well-known annual tennis tournament, were put in jeopardy last week after the government denied him entry and terminated his visa. The Serbian top-ranked tennis star stated on social media that he arrived in Australia with a medical exemption from Victoria’s state government, which he believed was likely to exempt him from the tournament’s strict vaccine requirements. However, this was not the case as the Australian Border Force issued a statement indicating that Djokovic failed to fulfill entry standards.

Following these events, Djokovic had to remain at the airport for more than eight hours, waiting to find out whether he would be allowed to enter the country after an airport interview. Eventually, he was transferred to a detention hotel monitored by immigration officers close to Melbourne’s downtown area. Officials began scrutinizing Djokovic’s visa application and ended up revoking it. “Rules are rules and there are no special cases,” stated the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that day.

But the situation wasn’t over. Judge Anthony Kelly of the Federal Circuit Court declared that Djokovic was treated unfairly after arriving at the airport and ordered his release on administrative grounds, overturning his visa cancellation. However, Kelly’s reasoning came not from the validity of the tennis player’s visa but from the government being forced to admit that he “hadn’t been given enough time to respond to its cancellation,” according to Zoya Sheftalovich and Ali Walker from Politico.

Now, why exactly did Djokovic’s exemption not meet the country’s entry requirements? Presently, the conditions to travel to Australia consist of having a visa, a recent negative Covid test, being fully vaccinated, and a truthfully-filled travel declaration. Furthermore, they have stated that past Covid-19 infections no longer justify delaying immunization. But Djokovic is not vaccinated, he tested positive for Covid-19 mid-December, as shown by a document in his declaration, and his application wrongly indicated that he had not traveled in the 14 days leading up to his flight to Australia. Djokovic even admitted he broke the Serbian isolating restrictions and confessed about the lie on the declaration form after Kelly’s order of release. He did, however, clarify that it was submitted by his support team on his behalf and they had accidentally ticked the incorrect box about his travels. “This was human error and certainly not deliberate. We are living in challenging times in a global pandemic and sometimes these mistakes can occur.” Djokovic continues to be free from detention and has stated that he intends to stay and defend his title in the competition since he’s been allowed back on the roster.

While the country does allow exemptions under certain circumstances, many Australians still believe that Djokovic’s just weren’t up to par, and the Prime Minister’s government agrees. A federal election is looming and Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party is on the lookout for any bad press that could displease the citizens. Australians have been subjected to strict lockdowns and border closures, so it makes sense that many have no compassion for a celebrity who received preferential privileges through the vaccination exemption, especially as the Omicron variant begins to overwhelm this nation who was able to keep the spread under control and outside its shores for the past couple of years.

Thus, the government hasn’t given up, pointing out that Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke can still intervene and re-revoke Djokovic’s visa. If Hawke decides to let Djokovic stay, the government will appear weak and it’ll seem as if regulations don’t apply to the rich and famous. Additionally, Australian governments have been successful by having a tough border enforcement stance, and Morrison’s government is no different, particularly now with the pandemic. Hawke’s decision could easily weaken this position as well as the Prime Minister’s chances for reelection.

Regardless, many are wondering why it has taken him so long to come out with his decision, what with the competition starting this coming Monday 17th. Of course, there’s the issue of preferential treatment but there’s another key reason as to why he might’ve been on the fence. The Australian Open is one of the country’s most beloved athletic events, drawing countless fans and visitors and generating almost 300 million dollars during pre-pandemic times. Because Djokovic is one of the world’s top tennis players, the competition could lose its leading name. The tournament’s director has also warned in the past that future locations aren’t guaranteed, especially because of the pandemic. “If…another country put in a lot of money for a big event that [is] easy to play at,” Australia could easily lose its spot as one of the four countries that host the major Grand Slam tennis events.

Nevertheless, just today, Hawke announced that Djokovic’s visa has been once again canceled on the grounds of “health and good order…on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” This means that he should be facing deportation along with a three-year visa ban, and he’ll be barred from competing in the Australian Open as well as any other tournaments held in the country for the next three years. But Djokovic and his team chose to appeal his cancellation, however, the Australian court rejected his challenge.

But the fact that such authoritative decisions are uniquely left up to Australia’s immigration minister has been a controversial topic for decades. To justify larger and more forceful powers, past governments have falsely associated migration with criminal behavior and terrorism. Hundreds of visa cancellation appeals have been filed in Australia’s federal courts and Djokovic’s situation reflects uncommon circumstances–media attention, the backing of money and institutions, as well as a large legal staff. But not everyone has access to these resources and even with Djokovic’s case, we can see the government’s arbitrary attitudes toward those seeking admission.

Currently, there are refugees in Australia who have been stuck in detention for more than a decade–stateless people that have no country to return to. Australia is particularly harsh on asylum seekers who arrive by boat–fleeing famine, war, mistreatment, among other conditions–and are not given the chance to even make their claim. Most are forced to stay in detention centers with horrible meals (some of which have even had maggots in them), not to forget the mental and physical toll it’s taken on the refugees. The United Nations, psychiatrists all over the world, and even those in charge of the incarceration system have all argued that it is detrimental to those stuck in it. Though the majority are awaiting passage to countries like the United States and Canada, they’re still stuck in the asylum jumble. Nevertheless, visa cancellations are common and the unparalleled powers that effectuate them are unchallengeable and frequently abused. I find it astonishing that it’s taken a tennis player’s scandal to bring attention to this refugee crisis.

In the case of Djokovic, though the government may be looking to “make an example” of the renowned tennis player due to his stance as what seems to be an anti-vaxxer, it is clear that the matter has also exposed structural problems regarding the country’s treatment of foreigners. These occurrences clearly show the toll that the pandemic has taken on international sports events as well as the ever-changing public health and border enforcement regulations that the Australian government has been enforcing.


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