How Australia Exposed its Flawed Immigration System to the World

January 12, 2022

There are, right now, refugees who arrived in Australia as children – whose claim for protection has been formally recognised – who have been stranded in detention for nine years. A childhood wasted, an adulthood formed in unjustified incarceration. There are stateless people – who have no country to which they can return – who have been detained more than a decade.

Novak Djokovic has claimed victory in one court, and is back on one more familiar.

But as he prepares for the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, he does so with a Damoclean sword hanging above his head.

Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, a close ally of the prime minister, is uniquely vested with extraordinary powers: at any time, with the stroke of the ministerial pen, he can end Djokovic’s right to stay in the country, and ban him for three years.

Within government, these are known as the “God powers”, and their use – and misuse – has been controversial for decades.

“I have formed the view that I have too much power,” a former holder of the immigration portfolio, Senator Chris Evans, said more than a decade ago.

“I am uncomfortable with that, not just because of concern about playing God, but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability for those decisions and the lack in some cases of any appeal rights against those decisions.”

Since Evans aired those concerns to the parliament, successive governments have falsely conflated migration with terrorism, or criminality, to justify more and more extreme powers.

Australia’s federal court docket is quietly filled with dozens of challenges to visa cancellations. Rarely are they as fortunate as Djokovic: backed by money, institutional support, media attention, and a legal team in the multitudes.

The worst-case scenario he faced was the abandonment of a tennis tournament (albeit a significant one).

But for a refugee arriving in Australia seeking protection, without money or resources, without English or knowledge of Australia’s arcane migration law, what prospects for a successful conclusion?

The glimpse of the government’s actions in the Djokovic case illuminate the capricious and arbitrary attitude taken by the Australian government towards people seeking entry.

Australia is unique among liberal democracies for indefinitely detaining asylum seekers (though only those who arrive by boat).

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