In August 2001, 438 Afghan asylum seekers watched from the deck of a container ship as the fishing boat they’d just evacuated disappeared into the roiling waves of the Indian Ocean. The Norwegian captain who’d led the rescue, Arne Rinnan, was warned by the Australian government not to dock the MV Tampa at the nearest port on Christmas Island (an Australian territory by way of British colonialism) but instead to return his passengers to Indonesia. Many were dangerously unwell. Others threatened to throw themselves overboard if the ship turned back. Rinnan set a course for Christmas Island, a decision for which he and his crew were later honoured by the UNHCR.
Meanwhile in Canberra, the prime minister, John Howard, threw together an emergency bill to grant him the power to remove foreign vessels from Australia’s seas. He backdated it to nine o’clock that morning, when the Tampa was still in international waters. The bill was voted down, but two weeks later 9/11 provided the political climate for Howard’s government to implement what became known as the Pacific Solution: boats could be intercepted and returned; Christmas Island was excluded from Australia’s migration zone (those landing there could no longer automatically seek asylum in Australia); and the processing of asylum seekers was shifted to offshore detention centres.
I read about the Tampa refugees in the computer room at school a few months later. By that time another boat had capsized near Christmas Island, and three hundred asylum seekers had drowned. It was the first time I’d heard about migrants dying at sea. I was sitting next to a boy who’d told me that his father was a paid-up member of the British National Party.
Nigel Farage once boasted that ‘I do not think anyone’s done more ... to damage the BNP than Ukip, and I am quite proud of that.’ It’s true that the BNP was largely swallowed by Ukip, which has in turn been mostly absorbed by the post-Brexit Conservative Party. Farage paraphrased his message to BNP voters: ‘If you are voting BNP because you are frustrated, upset with the change in your community, but you are doing it holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us.’ In practice, that meant delivering the same racist message – blame migrants for everything – with more nudges and winks. The UK’s own ‘Channel solution’ is now passing through parliament in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill.
For the last few days, the tennis player Novak Djokovic has found himself caught up in Australia’s border regime. On arriving to compete in the Australian Open, he was informed that he didn’t have the correct documentation to qualify for an exemption from the standard vaccination entry requirements. Djokovic refuses to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and was relying on the fact that he has twice been infected with the virus. He was held in a former hotel in Melbourne, now used as a detention facility, while he lodged an appeal. Yesterday, a judge ruled that the state should release him and refund his legal costs. Australia’s immigration minister may yet overturn that decision and again retract his visa.
There are solid moral arguments for trying to manage the spread of a highly transmissible disease during a pandemic. Travelling for elite tennis is not essential, and Djokovic’s unvaccinated status puts others at risk. He sees himself as the victim of a grave injustice but appears not to have registered the systemic injustices of the regime that detained him. Australia, like the UK, allows itself the right to detain people indefinitely. Around 1500 people are currently locked up, most of them in offshore facilities, far beyond the consciences of Australian politicians.
Ever the opportunist, Farage has become Djokovic’s most vocal advocate. On the face of it, this is a little peculiar. Farage is not only a professed devotee of Australia’s immigration policy, in particular ‘its points-based system’, but has built his political identity out of racialising and vilifying Eastern Europeans. Ahead of Farage’s meeting with the Djokovic family in Serbia (who either did no research on Novak’s ‘friend’ or liked what they found), Andy Murray tweeted: ‘Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported.’
But Farage’s worldview is one of hierarchies and exemptions. He cites the ‘rule of law’ when it comes to borders, but flouted the Covid lockdown in May 2020 – as it happens, on the same day as the Downing Street garden party – to strike out into the English Channel on a fishing boat and film dinghies of asylum seekers. ‘Was out mid-Channel early this morning,’ he tweeted, ‘and we found a small inflatable in trouble with over twenty onboard. They were bailing water. Footage will be out later. The invasion will continue unless we act.’ Nothing says ‘invasion’ like a clutch of frightened, exhausted people bailing water from a leaking boat.
Farage has also previously suggested bringing infectious disease control into border enforcement. In 2015, when asked who should be permitted to migrate to the UK, he responded ‘people who do not have HIV.’ (Between 1987 and 2009, it was US policy to refuse entry to HIV-positive travellers and migrants.) But there isn’t really any contradiction in his position: it’s another dogwhistle.
There are thirty asylum seekers imprisoned in the repurposed hotel that Djokovic has just left. At least one has been locked up for nine years: the Iranian asylum seeker Mehdi Ali fled to Australia at the age of fifteen, and recently turned twenty-four in detention. The Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani was held for several years in the Manus Regional Processing Centre. His book No Friend But the Mountains, written in WhatsApp on a smuggled phone he stowed inside his mattress, chronicles the psychological cost of enduring incarceration with no end date. The waste of life is staggering. So is the waste of resources. Guards patrol the hotel corridors day and night while the prisoners languish in their rooms, waiting for who knows what. Over the last few days the monotony was broken by boisterous crowds of tennis fans and anti-vaxxers protesting in the street outside, a galling reminder that people know how to raise hell for the incarcerated when they care to do so.
So far, Djokovic and his family, despite complaining about the inedible food and insects in his room, have said nothing about his fellow inmates. For someone with an audience of millions, it’s a serious dereliction of duty. The closest Farage has come is to remark: ‘If they can do this to the world’s number one tennis player, just think what they could do to you.’ It isn’t a threat or a boast, or a moment of realisation. It’s just a reminder that he’s still talking to a person slightly off-stage, nurturing their victimhood.