Let these people go

A quiet campaign has begun in Melbourne in the wake of the extraordinary media circus created by Novak Djokovic being placed in detention pending a judicial decision regarding his ability to remain in this city to compete in the Australian Open. We all know the outcome of that decision. He left!

While the media focussed on the drama of the number one tennis player in the world, who appeared to have misled the Australian Border Force in his application to enter Australia, the fact that he was detained in an inner-city hotel that was used to incarcerate asylum seekers, shone the light on a whole other story.

Djokovic was able to return to his home country of Serbia. The residents of the Park Hotel in Carlton had all fled their home countries looking for a haven to call home, and for a variety of reasons, ended up in Australia. Like Djokovic, they also have not been made to feel welcome, but their incarceration cannot be counted in days, but in years.

The Freedom Cage was launched on February 6, with the specific remit “to stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers locked up in Australia and offshore under the harshest refugee policies in the world”.

It has been set up outside the Park Hotel, and various well and lesser-known individuals have spent eight minutes standing in the cage, to highlight the injustice of Australia’s refugee policies.

So far, Tim Costello, other Christian leaders including two Anglican bishops and retired soccer player and human rights activist, Craig Foster, have spent time in the cage.

Foster, speaking through the wire of the cage, said that 33 refugees have been locked up in the hotel behind him for nine years.

“They are upstairs with no windows, no air, they can’t come outside, they can’t feel the trees, they can’t meet their friends.

“It’s extraordinary that Australia has even been party to this kind of torture of innocent people, but we have. And it’s time we bring it to an end.”

“It’s utterly beyond my imagination that we have somebody in detention with an unknown future for so long.” – Bishop Paul Barker

Anglican bishops Philip Huggins and Paul Barker spent their time praying in the cage.

Bishop Barker described the nine-year incarceration of these 33 people as ‘brutal’.

“I think it’s despicable really,” he said. “It’s utterly beyond my imagination that we have somebody in detention with an unknown future for so long.”

When asked what he prayed for, the bishop said, “I prayed that these people would get freedom quickly; that God would sustain them; that governments will be merciful and change their policies and that our society will push them to do that.

“Governments won’t jump to change the policy unless they are pushed to do it. We have got to raise the voice to get them to change their mind. Djokovic has been and gone and the issue has disappeared from the media of course. It’s no longer a story really.”

Writing in The Saturday Paper, one of these refugees, Mehdi Ali, from Ahwaz Iran, describes his current housing as a cage.

He arrived at Christmas Island as a 16 year old. He has spent perhaps the most formative years of life, that teen/early twenties period, incarcerated. Now 24, he has given up hoping.

In the final paragraph of his story, Mehdi Ali writes:

“Unless the people of Australia stand up for us, we will not be released. The government knows that. It is why we’ve been a secret to most of the public for so long. When an ordinary person with a good heart pays attention to our situation, they will surely feel our pain. Imagine how our family suffers? Imagine how we suffer?” (The Saturday Paper, February 5-11, 2022)