Direct Provision was initiated as ‘an emergency measure’ in November 1999 in response to the perceived crisis resulting from the increased numbers of people seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland. 20 years later, what began as a temporary solution has become the state’s systemic response to asylum applications.
It was initially promised that people would spend no longer than 6 months in the system, but in reality the time spent in DP is usually somewhere between 2 and 4 years, and often up to 10. As of March this year there were 5,645 people living in Direct Provision. Approximately 1,018 of these have been granted refugee status by the state but remain in DP because the extreme shortage of rental accommodation (and the discriminatory rental market) has ensured they have been unable to find alternative housing.
The centres are mostly located in isolated rural areas in converted convents, hotels, holiday cottages, and prefabs, much of which is not fit for purpose. Residents live in cramped, unhygienic conditions, often having to share tiny bedrooms and bathrooms with strangers. They are constantly monitored by cameras and/or security guards and they live in complete dependence on management, who are often hostile, to ‘provide’ for them: they are often forbidden to cook for themselves, have guests in their rooms, or wash their own clothes or linen. The right to work is so limited as to be non-existent, and residents are given €38.80 ‘spending money’ per week (€29.80 for children).
Melatu Uche Okorie has described living in Direct Provision as ‘like being in an abusive relationship’. Several links have been drawn between the system and Ireland’s long tradition of institutional incarceration and abuse in workhouses, laundries, Mother and Baby homes, institutional schools, care homes and prisons.
Asylum Archive is an ongoing collaborative project run by Vukašin Nedeljković in both book and website form. Its objective is ‘to collaborate with asylum seekers, artists, academics, civil society activists among others, with a view to create an interactive documentary cross-platform online resource, which critically foregrounding accounts of exile, displacement, trauma and memory’.
The following conversation took place in May, over Zoom and email.
LND: I’ll begin by asking what the Asylum Archive meant for you when you started it, and how that has developed.
VN: It was actually my father who put a camera in my bag when I was leaving Belgrade– a very basic camera, a digital camera with 500 megapixels—it was a moment of realisation when I was unpacking those things in the room. And I started to take photographs, of my room, or my environment, of everything around, and that was the very beginning of my coping mechanism, how I survived Direct Provision.
At some point after my exit, I started reading about the Ryan Report and the Macaleese Report and then I thought that Direct Provision is not any different from any of those previous Irish carceral sites, and I would continue to document. From 2007 to now I’m still working on it, still documenting because I don’t want this to go unnoticed. The archive is about solidarity, and a very important part of this is the contributory aspect. That has significantly increased during coronavirus, because people keep sending me their work. And I hope that this body of work may be used one day, say in 10, 20, 30 years time when we are going to be writing an apology.
I got this award last year that means that all of Asylum Archive is going to be preserved in the Digital Repository of Ireland—we had a Zoom meeting about it yesterday, the whole work, it’s like 6000 plus photographs, are going to be cloned into the archive. The whole website is there, so there’s no escape, you know! As Topher Campbell said (and he was talking about queer New York) ‘it’s not their archive, it’s our archive.’
So that’s what it means for me, it means a kind of a combination—although I don’t know if combination is the right word—between art, activism and, really, legality or the legal. The RIA [Reception and Integration Agency], which is now called IPAS [International Protection Accommodation Service], used to have these glorious photographs of DP centres on their website, and I was always posing this question: is this what Direct Provision is? Because my research of 12 years tells me something completely different.
LND: There’s a tension here between a sense of futurity—in the way you’re anticipating a point when there will be a public apology for Direct Provision—and a more urgent need to respond to what’s happening in the present.
VN: Nobody in Direct Provision wants a public apology: they want to be free now.
LND: Right, exactly. And this urgency is at odds with a conventional idea of an archive as something for posterity, to consign something for the future. There’s this way that this archive which, on the website at least, is so accessible and collaborative in its presentation, it’s doing something to resist that consignment. But I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about how the work is still going to be ‘living archive’ when it’s in the national archives: will it be updated like the website? How does an artwork maintain that vital and complex position between institutional preservation and continuous circulation in the lives of the people who make it?
VN: That is a good question. Asylum Archive is what Stuart Hall calls a ‘living archive’. By that I mean it’s an ‘open-ended’ archive that may not have the beginning or end per se but is in a state of constant flux or movement. We as a society do not know what the future of DP will be, but until it’s abolished I will continue to work on AA and keep it updated. Being in the Digital Repository of Ireland only means that it’ll be preserved for the future generations; the main home of AA is its web presence where it’s accessible to everyone. I’m 44, still alive and kicking, so I will continue the archive for a very long time. I’d been wondering about how to continue, and the best thing that happened to me really, and the most devastating thing as well, was to visit the camps in Greece in Diavata. Now I’ve decided to apply the same visual methodologies per Asylum Archive to other European contexts.
My Fortress EU project is all work in Greece. We thought Direct Provision was bad but this is something else. And we can’t just blame Greece, it’s the EU, NGOs, UNHR, all of which have acted monstrously. If you remember my photos from Athlone, the containers. And in Diavata, where almost 1200 people are living, it’s like 8 men living in a container. And I was there a month and a half ago, it was very hot, it gets up to 45 degrees there, it’s off Thessoloniki in the middle of nowhere. Imagine 8 men living in a container. Then you have these UNHR camps for families, where you have, and this is the most harrowing thing, tents they brought all the way from their homes, and they live there. There was a police raid two days ago: police came into Diavata camp and deported maybe 2-300 people back to Turkey. My friend Yassin told me he was running away from the police for three hours.
LND: This brings me to one of the main differences you’ve highlighted between Direct Provision and other carceral sites in Ireland: the threat of deportation.
VN: Well, you know, the ‘fallen’ women in Magdalene Laundries, or young boys in industrial schools, were ‘Irish’. There’s one difference, I believe, with Direct Provision centres and that’s the fact that they’re what Ronit Lentin has called ‘site of deportability’.
Because deportation is the key here, you know, like we deport huge amounts of people—5000 last year—nobody talks about that. And they’re brutal, they’re violent. And this is very important: it means that once you get a deportation letter, you can be deported any time. And maybe we don’t hang people anymore we don’t beat people anymore, but—as Foucault perfectly explains in Discipline and Punish—this is simply the new approach to punishment. The tools have changed.
Now we have what Jeremy Bentham described as a perfect panopticon and that is Mountjoy prison or the prison in Cuba where there’s a guard on the top—he sees every single body in the prison. So there’s these new methods, like in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, it’s new forms of torture. That’s what Direct Provision is. It’s just different methods.
LND: Right. Methods of control and exploitation.
VN: So centres being sites of deportability means you can be deported any time. Most of the time you’re not deported, but it’s psychological. The idea is that the gardaí can come and exercise their power any time. That threat is very real and it can rid you of everything, as with Mohamed Sleyum Ali who was deported to Tanzania and attacked within hours of arriving there. First he was put in Cloverhill prison where he pleaded unsuccessfully not to be deported because his life was in danger. When he arrived in the airport in Tanzania, he was beaten up and thrown on the streets and three days after he died.
VN: Before he died he sent the photographs to Anti-Deportation Ireland, he said please use this, so that nothing like this should happen again. So that’s another dimension. But take Mount Trenchard [a Direct Provision centre, recently closed, that was likened to an ‘open air prison’ by residents] for example. It was a centre for single men, you can see the photographs donated to Asylum Archive. It was an IRA shelter in its beginning, it was a Mother and Baby Home, and then it became a Direct Provision centre. So that building embeds these layers of trauma. It’s unbelievable. I was there. You go to Limerick, from Limerick you go to Foyne, Foyne is in the middle of nowhere, you park the car there, you go through the forest for a mile and a half and there’s a building there. I remember being there three years ago, and the owner had put on every second tree as you walk through the forest, signs saying ‘Private Property’. That’s fucked up.
LND: Another related thing that happens when DP is linked to Ireland’s history of institutional incarceration is that the racism so present in Ireland today is overlooked or de-emphasised.
VN: Totally. And there is a new phenomenon that’s called, simply and bluntly, Corona racism. Since the pandemic hit new racisms have been perpetrated by gardaí for example, or landlords, or anybody that, when you don’t fit the narrative of ‘settled Irish’.
LND: The ‘crisis’ mentality is allowing for abuse of state power as well as serious xenophobia. And of course this is nothing new: those were the conditions that allowed Direct Provision to exist in the first place. In 1999 when the possibility of changes to asylum system was being discussed 74% of responders to an Irish Times poll said that they wanted ‘strict limits’ on the numbers of asylum seekers. But it’s completely appalling what happened in the Skellig Star Hotel.
VN: According to RTÉ News there have been around 20 cases of coronavirus among approximately 100 residents there since the centre opened just over a month ago and still it’s not been closed. I was there on the day they were to arrive and there was this local resident who lived on one of the islands who was up in arms about them coming. The population of Cahersiveen is 1500 and there were 90 of them and he was trying to say to me that they shouldn’t come because there would be issues with Islamophobia.
LND: Exactly! The people in the town were calling for the centre to be closed, and for some it’s because it’s cruel and disgusting and those seeking asylum should be let out, but others were calling for its closure simply because they are racist and they want them out of the town. And then the people of Cahersiveen get a public apology for the risk of infection caused by the new centre, while the asylum seekers don’t, even though they were the ones forced to move into cramped rooms with strangers, with 24 hours notice, in the middle of a pandemic. The letter thanks local residents for their patience and good will, and even thanks the staff at the Skellig Star, but never addresses the asylum seekers. Instead they get blamed for ‘not following Public Health recommendations’; they’re treated as if they are the virus. Just like that local you mentioned who was blaming them for the Islamophobia they were likely to encounter.
LND: Bearing this racism in mind, is it helpful to think about links between the treatment of people in need of international protection, and the so-called housing crisis in Ireland, the huge increase of homelessness and the people who are suffering due to the lack of regulation in the private rental sector? Is it helpful to ask for that kind of solidarity?
VN: Totally, yeah. But it’s complicated. And then I would say very simply that we have to go back to the NGO sector and back to the Nasc and Doras Luimní [two migrant rights NGOs]. The question they always have is ‘what are you going to do with people if you give them all amnesty, where are they going to live?’ I believe that’s a myth, right, it’s a big myth and it’s a racist statement as well, because we need to work twofold: we need to work together on how to eradicate homelessness but also we don’t need to continuously incarcerate people in Direct Provision either. The fact that there’s a housing crisis doesn’t mean that you have to continue to incarcerate people. So you have to let them free—they’re clearly very resilient, they will find new ways. And from that, let’s say, mud or nothingness of Direct Provision they will rise. They’re not asking the government of Ireland how they will rise but I know they will if you just set them fucking free. Of course there’s another obligation on the government to house them or help them with housing, but they’re saying to me continuously just don’t worry about that, we’ll be fine. And I believe them! And I’m homeless! I believe all of them will find a way to negotiate their belonging.
LND: Would you say this would mean giving them back a degree of agency that they’ve been denied?
VN: All they want is—is it agency? Agency is an interesting word, but I would translate agency into humanity. I would like to say agency is like letting them be humans again. And they were stripped pre-corona of being human and then, corona and post-corona, they’re stripped of being human even more.
LND: How important is it not to have photographs of people in the archive?
VN: When you’re an asylum seeker, one day you can wake up and say oh it’s a good day, the sun is shining in fucking Ballyhaunis so I’m going to tell the truth. Next day you think, what did I say, this is going to jeopardise my case. But once it’s out there in the media it just gets reproduced again and again and your narrative, your picture is out there and there’s nothing you can do.
So I wanted to do something different. I kind of started with the fear that it might happen to me, but also more widely the thing about portraying humans in these situations is—you know that picture of Alan Kurdi who was killed—it lasted in the brains of Europeans or western Europeans for a couple of weeks you know, but like how many Alan Kurdis have died since Alan Kurdi? And there’s no mention of them. To have a picture there didn’t serve a purpose. So I just thought that showing the traces, or the ghosts or the remnants of people, something left after they’d been deported for example, or transferred, would tell a better story of the positionality of being an asylum seeker in Ireland.
LND: What’s the importance of the diary form for this project?
VN: Sometimes when you’re incarcerated, one coping mechanism, let’s say taking photographs, is not enough to—I’m not saying set you free, but not enough to help you. But if you have two, let’s say a written account and then you have a kind of visual account, that may help. On a personal level, it provides this kind of—and I’m coming back again and again to this word of Aristotle’s of catharsis, whatever you can do as an individual to find escapism out of that shitty scenario you’ve got to do it. I remember doing a job as an asylum seeker with Mayo county council they paid me €650 to document a project at the time and the first thing I did when I got the check, I didn’t bank it because I didn’t have a bank account, I went straight to the nearest photo shop in Castlebar and I said can I have a camera, and I use that camera today now to document what the fuck is going on in this homeless shelter. And that’s the thing when I come back to the origin of all this and it’s resistance of human bodies and it’s resilience of the human body. In my way it was through art. In somebody else’s way it’s through another modality, but it has to happen. Otherwise you’re dead.
LND: In the introduction to Carceral Capitalism Jackie Wang describes how, in the US, the social function of state has evolved from ‘provider of social services’ to ‘provider of security’, and this mandate has become a justification for anti-black violence, incarceration and warfare. Words like ‘security’, ‘care’, ‘asylum’, ‘shelter’, ‘provision’ have all been co-opted, corrupted by their use by right-wing governments and corporations to institute violence and extractive oppression. How do we recuperate the sense of actual care in these words? Can we reappropriate them to allow for more expansive possibilities?
VN: That’s a very good question. But you know, we forget about words like ‘commons’. It’s important to focus on something that we should all be able to access, and not as landlords, not to make a profit. So when we’re talking about End Direct Provision we’re talking about people having access to the commons. And this is the fact, the latest governmental report says that if you give each asylum seeker rent allowance, full social welfare which is jobseekers allowance for example, even child benefit, it’s going to be ten million cheaper per year than running Direct Provision centres. That’s fucking government of Ireland! You should look at the work of Evgeny Shtorn, he’s a friend of mine and an LGBT activist from St. Petersburg, he was in Direct Provision for two years, he writes a lot about that, and he quotes Leo Tolstoy and he says it’s not only immoral, but also irrational and ineffective. But the thing is, right, somebody is making a huge profit.
LND: Right. When the Irish Examiner reported last month that the state has paid €1.3 billion to private companies for running Direct Provision centres, they talked about bureaucratic slowness and shirking of responsibility in the government being part of the reason for this. And all this slowness, and all the energy that’s directed into ‘improving’ the DP system feeds into corporate interests, because it means that DP continues to exist as a means for them to extract profit from the most marginalised. I wonder if you could say anything about the question of reform, and how to respond to people who say that the Direct Provision system should be improved from within?
VN: There is no reform of DP that we will accept. DP has to be abolished.
LND: I think I said this before, but I’ve got a neurodivergent family member with complex care needs and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out an adequate living situation that doesn’t involve shutting him away in a care home. It’s a different situation of course, and I hope it’s not too tangential, but I bring it up because I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to exist in public life in this country, and who doesn’t. Nothing I’ve read has been more helpful in this regard than abolitionist feminism, which always leads me back to the same question: how do you ask for another future if you can’t yet imagine what it will look like?
VN: In this case it’s very simple and I have no other answers. I was trying to work out answers and answers, and the one simple answer is open the fucking borders. Just open the borders. Anybody in Nigeria or South Africa for example who needs to come to the UK or Ireland, should be allowed to come. Whether to work, to get a bit more money, or to apply for asylum—but there shouldn’t be detention centres or DP centres, just fucking let everybody in. I have no other answers.
The Asylum Archive can be accessed here. Please donate, if you can, to the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland. MASI is an independent, grass-roots migrant group campaigning for justice, freedom and dignity for all asylum seekers in Ireland.
 The Ryan Report, released in 2009, revealed the findings of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which investigated child abuse in Irish institutions, most especially in institutional schools run by the Catholic Church. In 2013 the Macaleese Report revealed the findings of an inquiry into the state’s involvement with the Magdelene laundries.
Vukašin Nedeljković initiated the multidisciplinary Asylum Archive project, a platform open for dialogue and discussion inclusive to individuals who have experienced a sense of sociological/geographical ‘displacement’, social trauma and violence. It is an act of solidarity to bring a different perspective on the life of people who came to Ireland to seek protection. Asylum Archive’s objective is to collaborate with asylum seekers, artists, academics and activists, amongst others, with a view to creating an interactive documentary cross-platform online resource, critically foregrounding accounts of exile, displacement, trauma and memory.
Lily Ní Dhomhnaill is completing a PhD on archives and inheritance in US poetry and performance. She lives in Kerry and London, and is the current Reviews Editor for The Stinging Fly.
TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.