Novak Djokovic’s wrangling with authorities over entering Australia has inadvertently highlighted a different plight: those of the refugees and asylum seekers stuck for months, and years, at the Park Hotel.
The infamous detention hotel in Carlton, Melbourne, where the tennis star is likely to spend the weekend as he awaits a court hearing over his visa cancellation has been described by detainees as a “torture cell”.
“There is no fresh air, there was recently a fire, the food is not great, we do not have access to a gym, the hotel is totally locked up,” 38-year-old Jamal Mohamed tells Guardian Australia.
“I am suffering each and every day. I have nightmares every night, all I want is freedom. It’s really terrible, I don’t know one person here who feels good about it.”
Mehdi, a refugee who has spent nine years in detention, told Guardian Australia: “There is a disappointment: everyone wants to ask me about Novak, what the hotel is like for him. But they don’t ask about us: we have been locked up in this place for months, for years.
“I’ve never seen so many cameras, so much attention. I hope Novak Djokovic learns about our situation here, and I hope he speaks about it.”
The Australian Border Force has been using Carlton’s Park Hotel in Melbourne as an ad-hoc detention centre for refugees since December 2020.
Many of the refugees and asylum seekers have been held in detention for up to nine years, with the Park Hotel only their most recent location after being transported from Nauru for medical reasons.
The vast majority of those still detained in the hotel – commandeered as an ‘alternative place of detention’ by the federal government – were brought to Australia in 2019 from offshore processing islands under the short-lived medevac laws.
That means doctors judged they required urgent medical attention for serious conditions. Most have not received the medical care they require.
Jamal Mohamed said conditions had worsened in the time he had been there.
“It’s like a torture cell. I would definitely call it torture,” he said.
In late December, reports emerged of meals with maggots and mouldy bread was being served to detainees, with some reportedly getting sick from the food.
Several fires also broke out in December, leading to the refugees being evacuated and one person taken to hospital with smoke inhalation.
Ishmael, another refugee detained at the hotel, said he and his fellow refugees have been “treated badly” at the hotel, and says he feels he is “losing his mind” there.
“We’ve been held in a place that has no sunlight at all, no fresh air, no where to move, and we spend 23 hours a day in a single room with no windows, and we don’t know how long we will be kept here.”
“We’ve been sick, both physically and mentally.”
When he heard about Djokovic’s arrival, he said the tennis star was “lucky” he won’t be treated like them.
“We know they want to send a message, with Djokovic’s arrival, that they have a strong border that is fair to everyone. But it hasn’t been fair for nine years. They differentiate between people based on class, some people from developed countries have never been detained.
“So now they want to send that message, but it’s not true, and it has never been true, they have discriminated against people who come by boat, the most vulnerable people who don’t have another option.”
The Park Hotel was the centre of a Covid outbreak in October and November almost half of the people detained there tested positive for Covid. At least one was taken to hospital by ambulance.
But even before it was a detention centre, under its former name, Rydges, the hotel was used for hotel quarantine and was the centre of Victoria’s second Covid wave.
Joy, another refugee detained at the hotel, called it a “torture centre,” saying he has been there for two years for “no reason.”
“Freedom is beautiful for human beings. Novak Djokovic may be held for nine hours or nine days. But we have been medically abused.”
“We are discriminated against because we came by boat, not plane. There was no caring. We came for safety, not to play tennis. It’s not sporting or fair.”
“Please, we want our freedom.”
A government inquiry found “around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Victoria since late May 2020 were attributable to the outbreak at Rydges”.
Rydges was removed from the Victorian hotel quarantine program, the government inquiry found: “insufficient regard was paid to infection prevention and control standards across the entire program and, particularly, to that location”.
“There were consistent themes in the evidence and information provided to the Inquiry about concerns regarding matters including: access to fresh air; access to good quality food; the state of cleanliness of the facility.”
The 107-room hotel, on Swanston Street, was bought by the Pelligra Group in September 2020 for $35m, and its name changed from Rydges to Park.