Outside Djokovic 'hotel', Serbian supporters rub shoulders with refugee advocates

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  • Novak Djokovic
    Novak Djokovic
    Serbian tennis player

As rain pelts the crowd outside a Melbourne detention centre believed to be housing Novak Djokovic, shouts of "free Novak" alternate with "free refugees" as fans stand alongside activists and anti-vaccine protesters.

The vaccine-sceptic tennis ace was held after arrival in Australia this week -- his visa revoked for failing to meet the country's tough pandemic restrictions.

In the crowd of about 50 people that gathered for a second day of protest Friday, some displayed larger-than-life posters of the star while others held anti-vaccine placards and another group called "Grandmothers for Refugees" voiced support for detained migrants.

Draped in flags and playing nationalistic songs, some Serbians celebrated Orthodox Christmas Day at the protest.

"He's our blood, we are supporting our nation. He's not getting a Christmas and is stuck in a detention centre," said Djokovic supporter Tara Aksentijevic.

Fellow fan Sash Aleksic echoed the views of some anti-government protesters in the crowd who oppose Australia's Covid-19 policies.

"Our human rights have gone out the window... and they (are) using the medical excuses."

One man held up an anti-vaccine poster that read: "Free the Novax legend".

In retaliation against the anti-vaccine protesters, a group named the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) arrived, showing support for asylum seekers.

"Because of his wealth and status, Novak was almost able to bypass the important public health measure. The refugees are innocent and Djokovic isn't," said 27-year-old Zak Borzovoy of CARF.

Djokovic supporters attempted to confront the group, but police intervened, forming a line to separate them.

Aleksic defended the nine-time Australian Open champion.

"You know, a lot of people don't like him, and they have their right to not like him. But what's he really done? They reckon he's arrogant because what, because he wins?"

It is unclear how long Djokovic -- who has declared himself against vaccines and claimed to have an exemption -- will be held.

A court is set to hear his legal challenge against his visa cancellation on Monday.

- 'Looking for freedom' -

Officially known as an "alternative place of detention", the Melbourne facility is home to around 32 migrants who are trapped in Australia's hardline immigration system.

It is believed the world's top tennis player is among them, although border authorities have refused to confirm where Djokovic is detained.

Detainees cannot leave and nobody is allowed in or out except staff.

The building, which was previously the Park Hotel, was graffitied with the slogan "free them all" by refugee supporters on Thursday night, when two people were arrested as police tried to clear the area.

A detainee had stuck up a sign reading "I am looking for my freedom" on one of the windows.

In the mishmash of messages outside the detention centre, hovering between the megaphones and flags, one person held up a somewhat incongruent poster, embellished with three red hearts, that read: "Free hugs".

The centre gained notoriety last year when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.

Detainee Mehdi Ali told AFP on Thursday that Djokovic is his favourite tennis player, and that he was saddened by the prospect of the star being held there.

"The media will talk about us more, the whole world probably, which is so sad, just because Djokovic would be here for a few days," he said.

bur-dva/axn

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