Djokovic plight serves up refugee reminder

Hannah RyanAAP
Iranian refugee Hossein Latifi has been detained in Melbourne's Park Hotel for four months.
Camera IconIranian refugee Hossein Latifi has been detained in Melbourne's Park Hotel for four months. Credit: AAP

Hossein Latifi had spent almost nine years in Australia's immigration detention system by the time tennis superstar Novak Djokovic was sent to join him last week.

The Iranian refugee, 32, has been detained in Melbourne's Park Hotel for four months. Before that, he was held for more than six years in the tiny island state of Nauru. Then in February 2020, he was transferred to Australia for mental health treatment.

Treatment - and freedom - have proved elusive.

While world tennis No.1 Djokovic was released on Monday night, Mr Latifi and around 30 other refugees and asylum seekers once held behind fences on Manus Island or Nauru remain detained on the hotel's second floor.

They hope Djokovic's brief spell in their hotel will bring renewed attention to their plight.

All of them were evacuated to Australia for medical care after being sent to offshore processing centres between 2013 and 2014, but have never been released into the community or offered resettlement elsewhere.

Mr Latifi describes life in the Park Hotel as "death".

"There is nothing to do, we are stuck on level two. There is no fresh air in the rooms because there are no windows," he told AAP.

Refugees can head upstairs to an outdoor smoking area, but Mr Latifi's depression keeps him bound to his room.

"I know I need fresh air, I should go upstairs, (but) because I'm unhappy I don't want to see anybody, I don't want to talk to anybody," he said.

In recent months, the refugees have endured a fire in the hotel, a COVID-19 outbreak, and maggots in their food.

But the worst thing is the uncertainty and lack of freedom, Mr Latifi said.

He wants Australians to imagine themselves in his position.

"Nine years. You're always saying tomorrow, next day, next week, next month - and nothing," he said.

Mustafa Salah was just a child when he sought asylum in Australia with his father at age 14.

Now 23, the Iraqi man was moved from the Park Hotel to Melbourne's immigration detention centre a week ago.

"I've spent half of my life in detention centres," he told AAP, saying the Park Hotel was the worst of them all because of the lack of fresh air.

Seeing the media interest in Djokovic "shocked" Mr Salah.

"I've been detained for nine years ... I've never seen that much media in all these years," he said.

"Now they care because of this man. But before, we (were forgotten). No one asked about us, we don't see this kind of media around the hotel.

"He came to play tennis and we came for our lives."

Mr Salah has taken up bodybuilding in detention but wishes he could pursue his sport as a free man.

Like Djokovic, he says, "I'm an athlete, I'm trying to follow what I love".

Two days ago, Mr Latifi could see and hear a large media pack outside the hotel.

By Tuesday, they were all gone, he said.

He hopes Djokovic - a "powerful man" - will speak out about the conditions of detention.

Amnesty International's Graham Thom says Djokovic received "a brief glimpse of what refugees have been experiencing for years because of the Australian government's shameful refugee policies".

"If something positive can come from this saga it's that a global spotlight has again shone on this dreadful situation ... which has seen the suffering and death of people whose only 'crime' was to seek safety on Australian shores," Dr Thom said.

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