Guest post by Vukašin Nedeljković, Independent artist, Sasha Brown, Maynooth University, and Joseph S. Robinson, Maynooth University. Vukašin is an independent artist and the curator of The Asylum Archive. He has exhibited his work both in Ireland and internationally. His recent contributions include Reiterating Asylum Archive: Documenting Direct Provision in Ireland, 2018, and Asylum Archive: An Archive of Asylum and Direct Provision in Ireland, in 2016 and 2017. He was recently awarded the Arts and Activism bursary from the Irish Arts Council and is the publisher of Asylum Archivea collection of his work with original scholarly essays from leading scholars. Sasha is a migrant in Ireland from Gayogohó:no—the lands of the Cayuga People on Turtle Island, land currently occupied by New York State, USA. He is a final-year PhD student in Geography at Maynooth University. His work includes using qualitative and quantitative methods to ‘study up,’ to investigate state power and use innovative mapping tools to tell stories. Joseph is a migrant in Ireland from the homeland of the Wiyot People, land currently occupied by that State of California, USA. He is a final-year PhD student in Geography and Maynooth University. His research examines the complex legacies and memories of past violence and displacement on the island of Ireland. He is the author of Transitional Justice and the Politics of Inscription: Memory, Space, and Narrative in Northern Ireland, published in 2018 with Routledge Press.

A version of this post was published in the inaugural journal of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI). To purchase this journal or discover other ways to support MASI’s work, please contact MASI at info@masi.ie.

Spaces of Direct Provision

In 2014, in the aftermath of scathing criticism of Ireland’s system of Direct Provision by the Special Rapporteur to UNHRC, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Irish Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission concluded that “Direct Provision… has failed to adequately protect the rights of those seeking protection in Ireland.” The government of Ireland subsequently established a Working Group on Direct Provision which released its report in 2015. The Report, known as the McMahon Report, listed 173 recommendations designed to bring Direct Provision in line with international human rights standards. However, four years after the release of the McMahon Report, its recommendations have only been patchily implemented. More fundamentally, cruelty, inhumanity and racism has been fundamental to what the system of Direct Provision is since its founding, and minor ‘reforms’ will not change this.

In this post, we argue that Direct Provision is a system of State disappearance and to truly understand its scope and impact, one must examine the spatiality of the system. The Direct Provision System is designed to hide the Irish State’s treatment of those seeking protection under international law by warehousing people and families in locations disconnected from public infrastructure and services. This engineered spatial isolation of asylum seekers is equivalent to ‘open air prisons’ and functions as a form of ‘permanent exclusion from the modern state.’  This enforced spatial exclusion in turn circumvents efforts to hinder and resist the power to deport asylum seekers, in effect creating ‘deportable bodies.’ Thus, the space of Direct Provision is not only the isolated, excluded, and disconnected reception centres, former hotels, and caravan parks that warehouse asylum seekers such as Mosney, Balseskin, and Ballyhaunis, that space is also the distance and division the system creates between asylum seekers and the social, political, and cultural life of Ireland. This spatial distance in turn directly parallels other forms of mass incarceration embedded deep in Irish history. From psychiatric hospitals to industrial schools to workhouses to mother and baby homes to Magdalene Laundries to now, Direct Provision, the modern history of Ireland is bound up in the disappearance of those deemed undesirable by the Irish State.

We would also like to use the opportunity afforded by this post to introduce a project designed to combat this unjust spatiality of Direct Provision, a radical countermapping platform capable of illuminating the lives, struggles, resistances, and memories of people living and/or surviving Direct Provision. Through this project, we wish to explore how the Irish State has historically produced spaces of exception such as the Direct Provision system to deny certain categories of people, as Giorgio Agamben puts it following Hannah Arendt, the “right to rights.” However, we are not interested in merely “exploring” this hidden history, we are interested in actively subverting it. As Charlotte McIvor has argued: “We non-residents [of Direct Provision centres] contribute actively towards its maintenance by turning away daily from what is hidden in plain sight.” This project represents our struggle not only to criticise the cruelty of Direct Provision, but also to combat the states of denial that enabled and continue to enable State disappearance on the island of Ireland.

Countermapping and Political Resistance

We would hardly be the first to point out that mapping is an inherently political act, one forged in and tainted by associations with European colonialism and the forms of spatial knowledge it imposed on colonised, marginalised, and dominated peoples. Countermapping in turn is an effort to map against existing structures of power, dominance, and hegemony in which the stories, experiences, and spatial knowledges of marginalised people are foregrounded.

The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) is responsible for the procurement and overall administration of Direct Provision centres. Below (fig. 1) is a map they published of centres in Ireland as part of their 2017 Annual Report. The map is surrounded by statistics, bar graphs, and pie charts. Thousands of complex lives are collapsed here into blue flag pins on a flat space. We do not hear the voices of the people represented by those pins and are given no understanding their experience outside of staged testimonials and heavily curated photo ops. If residents of Direct Provision were given leave to speak, we might hear about how they have been dispersed into isolated centres managed oftentimes by for-profit private institutions, how the conditions in these centres are often appalling, overcrowded, and unhygienic, how many who have fled other traumatic circumstances in their home countries suffer disproportionately from avoidable mental and physical degradation.

Fig. 1: Map of Direct Provision centres, RIA Annual Report, 2017

Our countermapping project has been inspired by two other projects that have also demanded that people suffering from spatial injustice be afforded the right to represent themselves. The first is the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), under which housing activists and scholars work with those evicted and displaced in the San Francisco Bay Area to produce a beautiful set of maps (fig. 2) that “[Make] tangible the life stories and community experiences of people at the forefront of the Bay Area’s eviction epidemic.” The AEMP employs cartographic tools and mapping platforms to visualise data and tell stories about people, places and land in order to “render visible the landscapes, lives, and sites of resistance and dispossession elided in capitalist, colonial, and liberal topographies.”

Fig. 2: “Narratives of Displacement, Oral History Project of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.” The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Image used with permission.

We also draw heavily on The Asylum Archive, curated by Vukašin Nedeljković, an archive of documents, artefacts, oral histories, and photography that vivifies in stark and uncompromising detail the everyday realities of life in Direct Provision—the waiting, the boredom, the depression, the unhygienic conditions, the spatial isolation (fig. 3). Nedeljković argues that the singularly beautiful and often heartbreaking images and materials are not presented merely to be gazed upon, rather that they are presented as a “platform for open dialogue and discussion” that “critically brings forward accounts of exile, displacement, trauma and memory.” In doing so, the Asylum Archive is both a countermap and a counterarchive, an activist representation of unjust spatialities that demands political action. To again draw on the work of the curators of the AEMP, “Countermapping is for us a political act and one that (we insist) should be accompanied by political action.”

Fig. 3: The Old Convent Direct Provision centre, Ballyhaunis, co. Mayo. The Asylum Archive. Image used with permission.

Countermapping Direct Provision

We are conscious of the risk in a project such as this of colonising the individual experiences of living and surviving Direct Provision. Therefore, we designed this project to respect how (and if!) residents and survivors of Direct Provision wish to communicate their experiences to a wider audience. The platform will support a variety of different visual and audial modalities, including (but not limited to) videography, photography, original art, oral history and testimony.

The base map (fig. 4) shows the locations of current and former DP centres, each represented by a node. Clicking on a node will bring up photographs of the centre as documented in the Asylum Archive. Individual residents and survivors who participate in the project will then have a variety of possible means to creatively weave the stories they choose to tell into the map.

Fig. 4: Countermapping the Irish Carceral State: Base map platform [under construction]

Mapping stories is and will be a fully collaborative process. The research team importantly includes a practising artist and survivor of Direct Provision (Nedeljković), a GIS professional and political geographer specialising in migration and detention (Brown), and a political and cultural geographer specialising in place and memory (Robinson). We are also advised by a supervisory Board comprised of anti-Direct Provision, anti-racist, and anti-deportation activists, experts in carceral systems in Ireland, and international migration. The unique possibilities of web mapping do have some limitations, but they can also engender a degree of public visibility that other forms of storytelling may not possess and can lead to new potentialities of visual storytelling as part of a collaborative process between the storyteller and the researchers.

When we began this project, the first story we collected and mapped was co-author Vukašin Nedeljković’s (fig. 5). Nedeljković chose to share his story through a combination of oral history, photography, and academic writing. When the viewer clicks on the link to Nedeljković’s story, a Soundcloud appears with an audio recording of Nedeljković’s voice reading excerpts from his Direct Provision diaries set against a slideshow of his haunting photography. This is how Nedeljković chose to contribute to the project as a survivor of Direct Provision, however, Nedeljković’s spatial reflections, representations, experiences, and artistic interventions are his own unique story from his own voice, through the collaborative process other residents or survivors of Direct Provision can or choose other modalities or combinations of modalities to express themselves using the countermapping platform.

Fig. 5: Vukašin’s story, Countermapping the Irish Carceral State [Under Construction].

This form of public countermapping is different than merely putting blue flags into a flat space. There are risks to making public and making visible emotive and personal stories (even anonymised) told by people who have suffered as a result of the Direct Provision system. However, the collaborative process helps ensure that participants are always in control over what and how they share in public, digital space.

Call to Participate

This post also acts as a call to readers to participate in the project. Initially, we are piloting this project working closely with our colleagues in the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) to present a small number of stories as we explore the strengths and limitations of platform. But as the project develops, we hope a wide variety of residents and survivors of Direct Provision will choose to engage with us in this project.

We hope this public countermapping project and the stories presented through it will fundamentally challenge attempts by the Irish state to mute, marginalise, atomise, and spatially isolate refugees and asylum seekers on the island of Ireland. We hope that, like the Asylum Archive, this project can provoke critical witnessing on the part of settled Irish residents and allow asylum seekers the freedom to demand that their bodies, experiences, stories, and memories matter, that they are actively participating in the perpetual recreation of Irish life and society. Above, all we hope this project can contribute to our shared struggle to end Direct Provision.

The Countermapping the Irish Carceral State website is currently under construction. We hope to make it public between March and May of 2020. Please feel free to contact us at countermappingireland@gmail.com or reach out on Twitter @CounterIrish.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Nedeljkovic, V., Brown, S. and Robinson, J. (2020). Direct Provision and Countermapping the Irish Carceral State. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/01/direct-provision (Accessed [date])