World number one tennis player Novak Djokovic has had his visa to enter Australia dramatically revoked on his arrival in Melbourne, amid a huge backlash over a vaccine exemption.
Djokovic was held in the airport for several hours before border officials announced he had not met entry rules.
He was then taken to a government detention hotel. A court will decide on his deportation on Monday.
The row is around an exemption he said he had to play in the Australian Open.
Tournament organisers said the Serbian player, who has said he is “opposed to vaccination”, had been granted medical exemption by two independent medical panels organised by Tennis Australia and Victoria state, and denied he had been given special treatment.
The decision infuriated many in a country that has seen a surge in Covid-19 cases, and where over 90% of those over 16 are fully vaccinated. People have also had to endure some of the world’s strictest restrictions and some still cannot travel between states or internationally.
On Wednesday, border officials said the 34-year-old had “failed to provide appropriate evidence” for entry after arriving from Dubai. He is now being held at a hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton which is used for immigration detention.
“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia,” the Australian Border Force (ABF) said in a statement.
Djokovic’s team challenged ABF’s decision, and a hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia has been scheduled for Monday.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied Djokovic was being singled out and said no-one was above the country’s rules. But he added that Djokovic’s stance on vaccination had drawn attention.
“When you get people making public statements – of what they say they have, and what they are going to do, and what their claims are – well they draw significant attention to themselves,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
Though Djokovic’s reason for an exemption has not been disclosed, Mr Morrison said contracting Covid-19 in the past six months was not among federal criteria for one.
The saga prompted Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to say Djokovic was a victim of “harassment” and that “the whole of Serbia” supported him. Mr Morrison denied the visa cancellation was because of “any particular position in relation to Serbia”, describing the nation as “a good friend of Australia”.
Outside the hotel where Djokovic was being held, supporters of the tennis player expressed anger at his treatment. “It’s an international scandal and the world is watching,” a Serbian woman, identified only as Jelena, told the BBC.
The player’s father, Srdjan, said his son had been held in a room guarded by police at the airport. “This is not just a fight for Novak, but a fight for the whole world,” he said in a statement.
Glaring questions remain
“Rules are rules,” the prime minister says, about Novak Djokovic being deported. Scott Morrison is back to talking tough but so far he has not explained or answered the glaring questions at the heart of this story.
What is the issue with Djokovic’s visa? What was the medical reason for his exemption?
And why had he been given the green light to fly and take part in the Australian Open if there are issues with his visa application? Big enough issues, it seems, for the player to get deported.
Remember, while his vaccine exemption has caused a great deal of anger among Australians – who for months now have been urged to get the jab – Djokovic is not the only player who was granted one.
Tennis Australia said that a handful of the 26 athletes who applied were given an exemption. Who are they? Why are their cases different from Djokovic’s?
There also seems to be a clear disconnect between federal and state government decisions. The state of Victoria had approved Djokovic to compete in a tournament he’s dominated and to defend his title.
On Wednesday, Mr Morrison said it was Victoria’s decision to make. But less than a day later he has changed course to say no-one is above the rules. This decision has sparked anger overseas but the prime minister is hoping the decision will go down well among Australians.
Mr Morrison has been under immense political pressure over his government’s handling of the Omicron variant, amid rocketing numbers of cases and chaos at testing clinics. All with a looming election in the next few months.
Spanish tennis start Rafael Nadal, who is in Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open, said it was “normal” for Australians to get “very frustrated with the case”.
“The only for me clear thing is if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open,” he said, adding: “Of course after a lot of people had been dying for two years, my feeling is [that] the vaccine is the only way to stop this pandemic.”
But former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee told local media the visa U-turn was unprecedented, saying it “smells” of politics.
Many Australians had previously accused the government of allowing the rich and famous to do as they please while ordinary people remained separated from sick and dying loved ones.
Two other people were now having their medical exemptions reviewed, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. Mr Morrison said the ABF had previously advised Tennis Australia on visa expectations.
The Australian Open begins on 17 January in Melbourne. Djokovic has previously won the tournament nine times.