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Novak Djokovic’s Visa Cancellation Is About Politics, Not Health

The Australian government attempts to hide its COVID-19 mismanagement.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
Djokovic smiles while holding a tennis racket and towel.
Djokovic smiles while holding a tennis racket and towel.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic smiles during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 12. William West/AFP via Getty Images

On the face of it, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic—the first in his profession to win $100 million in prize money, considered by many the greatest tennis player of all time, and a brand ambassador for, among other entities, an Austrian banking cooperative—has little in common with an Afghan refugee.

But this past week, when he entered Australia to play in its Grand Slam tournament only to be detained by immigration officials, Djokovic exposed the punitive and arbitrary nature of the country’s immigration system—just as a group of Hazara asylum-seekers did 20 years ago when the Royal Australian Navy intercepted them on the high seas in what came to be known as the “Tampa affair,” for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa that picked up the migrants at sea when their own boat sank and tried to bring them to Australia.

Immigration systems are usually byzantine by design, so the details of both stories are hard to parse. But here is what we know of Djokovic’s: On Nov. 18, 2021, the Australian government granted Djokovic a temporary visa to compete in the Australian Open. Shortly after, Tennis Australia decided a prior COVID-19 infection or a doctor’s note would be sufficient to receive an exemption from the rule that all players be vaccinated. In December 2021, Djokovic himself contracted the virus. On Jan. 5, Djokovic, unvaccinated but believing he had been granted an exemption due to his prior infection, landed in Australia. After arriving, Australian border officials took his passport and interviewed him; the following day, his visa was canceled because, according to the Australian government, prior infection is not sufficient reason for exemption from a vaccination requirement for inbound travelers.

On the face of it, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic—the first in his profession to win $100 million in prize money, considered by many the greatest tennis player of all time, and a brand ambassador for, among other entities, an Austrian banking cooperative—has little in common with an Afghan refugee.

But this past week, when he entered Australia to play in its Grand Slam tournament only to be detained by immigration officials, Djokovic exposed the punitive and arbitrary nature of the country’s immigration system—just as a group of Hazara asylum-seekers did 20 years ago when the Royal Australian Navy intercepted them on the high seas in what came to be known as the “Tampa affair,” for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa that picked up the migrants at sea when their own boat sank and tried to bring them to Australia.

Immigration systems are usually byzantine by design, so the details of both stories are hard to parse. But here is what we know of Djokovic’s: On Nov. 18, 2021, the Australian government granted Djokovic a temporary visa to compete in the Australian Open. Shortly after, Tennis Australia decided a prior COVID-19 infection or a doctor’s note would be sufficient to receive an exemption from the rule that all players be vaccinated. In December 2021, Djokovic himself contracted the virus. On Jan. 5, Djokovic, unvaccinated but believing he had been granted an exemption due to his prior infection, landed in Australia. After arriving, Australian border officials took his passport and interviewed him; the following day, his visa was canceled because, according to the Australian government, prior infection is not sufficient reason for exemption from a vaccination requirement for inbound travelers.

In the Tampa affair, various international treaties Australia is bound to, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, led Afghans fleeing war to travel to Australia, believing they could apply for and likely receive asylum there. But as with Djokovic, the rules at the point of entry turned out to be different. The same day in August 2001 that Prime Minister John Howard sent the military to intercept the MV Tampa and prevent the asylum-seekers from landing in Australia, he introduced the Border Protection Bill into Parliament. This applied retroactively in forbidding “unauthorized individuals” from landing on Australian territory, even for the purposes of claiming refugee status.

The women and children on board were settled in New Zealand. Most of the men were sent to Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, where some spent years awaiting processing by the Australian government. (Many families who had been aboard the ship were not reunited until 2004.) For Howard, the immediate outcome was happier. A tough-on-borders stance became the cornerstone of his successful reelection campaign in November 2001. Memorably, a promise made in a speech after the Tampa incident that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” became Howard’s unofficial campaign slogan—and a road map to victory for conservative Australian politicians in years to come.

It’s in this context of election wins promising vigilance on immigration that the Djokovic scandal should be viewed. This is not a story not about sports or the triumph of science over misinformation but about politics. It is true Djokovic expressed skepticism about vaccines and his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine is what prompted Australian border guards to deny him entry. And yes, Djokovic is the world’s No. 1 male tennis player—though Tennis Australia’s attempt to grant him an “exemption” from vaccination was without authority.

When Djokovic’s visa was canceled a second time on Friday, after the first cancellation was overturned in a federal court on the basis that Djokovic had not been given enough time to find legal counsel, the Australian government revealed its motivations. The reason for the cancellation wasn’t because he failed to get vaccinated or that he had broken the rules after testing positive for COVID-19. (As it turns out, he did.) Instead, in an extraordinary edict from Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke summoning the “God-like powers” of that office, Djokovic’s visa was canceled on “health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.”

As Djokovic’s lawyer has pointed out, this decision fails to account for the effect Djokovic’s deportation may have on anti-vaccination sentiment. Already, there have been protests in support of Djokovic in the Victorian capital of Melbourne, resulting in fans pepper-sprayed and police injured. These gatherings have so far been small, perhaps because Australia is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, with an uptake rate for COVID-19 vaccines of nearly 90 percent. Additionally, cases are high enough right now for most of the country to be a designated “hot spot”—making Djokovic’s possible impact on those numbers negligible and rendering Hawke’s justification for canceling his visa paltry.

In his announcement, Hawke said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government “is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders.” Relevant here is that although the date of a federal election is decided, within some constraints, by the prime minister, Australians must go to the polls by May 21 of this year. There’s no surer sign an election is imminent than tough talk on border protection—in the name of which Djokovic will be detained in an immigration facility starting Saturday for as long as his legal case proceeds.

Until his first visa cancellation was overturned, Djokovic was held at Melbourne’s Park Hotel where, since December 2020, the Australian Border Force has housed dozens of refugees awaiting decisions on their asylum cases. In a convergence of narratives even a novelist might balk at, many in this group were held for years on remote Pacific islands, including Nauru, as part of Howard’s “offshore processing” policy implemented in the Tampa affair’s wake. Djokovic complained within his first day of detention about the food; a request to bring his personal chef to cook at the hotel was denied. The Serbian government intervened, and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said: “We managed to agree that he gets gluten-free food delivered, to get exercise equipment. He has been given a laptop, a SIM card so that he can be in contact with his family.”

Without the help of their governments, the refugees inside the Park Hotel are likely not furnished with those same comforts. But without Djokovic in a room alongside them, no one outside of a small group of activists would have stopped to consider what sort of food refugees are being fed while they await adjudication either. Protesters hoping to capitalize on the international media’s presence to draw more attention to the refugees’ plight have gathered outside the hotel in recent days. A refugee law advocate told the Sydney Morning Herald that, in many respects, Djokovic’s case resembled those of her clients: “denied procedural fairness, cut off from their lawyers, and denied time to properly respond to a cancellation.”

As he did with Djokovic, Hawke could use his immense discretionary powers to intervene in other immigration cases if he felt like it. In addition to the refugees stuck in limbo inside the Park Hotel, one case that has attracted attention is that of the Murugappan family. The family seeking asylum are of Tamil origin, from Sri Lanka, and have been fighting a long legal battle to remain in Australia, where they were brought after one of their two daughters, Tharnicaa, became ill while detained on Christmas Island.

Weird as it sounds, Djokovic’s story shone an uncomfortable light on two decades of indefinite detention in and outside of Australian borders for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In the runup to what will be a closely fought election, the government hopes that by rescinding Djokovic’s visa, they have thrown the people some red meat. But many questions remain, including why Djokovic was issued a visa in the first place if, as the government has stated, it went against border policy to let in the unvaccinated. The prime minister will need to answer other questions, too, if he is to win the election. Omicron has hit the economy, and the health care sector, hard. There are widespread reports of empty supermarket shelves and a dearth of rapid antigen tests. Why did Morrison not plan ahead? In particular, he failed to procure Australia enough boosters ahead of the surge when, with strict border policies keeping COVID-19 in check and some of the harshest lockdowns in the world, he had a two-year head start on the rest of the world.

Political cravenness is one thing; the incompetence revealed in the government’s handling of Djokovic’s case makes this less a win than they might think it is. “An absolute shambles” is how independent Tasmanian Sen. Jacqui Lambie described it. She was referring to Djokovic, but with the avoidable disarray wrought by omicron, she could have been talking about Morrison’s COVID-19 response too. Still: Safe borders as a campaign crutch have worked before. Who could have guessed, 20 years on, they’d be invoked to keep out a European tennis champion?

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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