On Saturday 18 November a rally organised by United against Racism heard moving speeches by several asylum seekers living the Direct Provision for-profit incarceration system where men, women and children are held often for up to ten years. The Irish Times reported Mavis who has lived in Direct Provision with her three children for fifteen months, as saying: “For me every day is a struggle, to watch my children suffering and getting sick. I wish one day somebody, an Irish citizen would go into my life for one week and they would know what a hell it is. I don’t even have words. Waiting and waiting for a decision is one of the hardest things a mother can do. What can we do? We have to pray and hope.”
The rally was part of the campaign to close the Direct Provision system, end deportations and grant asylum seekers the right to work, as per the Supreme Court recent ruling. According to Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), the restrictions imposed by the government on asylum seekers’ right to work, including not working while appealing their applications for refugee status, amount to a total denial of asylum seekers’ right to work.
Beside bed and board – including inappropriate, out of date and insufficient food – asylum seekers are forced to exist on a weekly “comfort allowance” of €21.60, and their lives are decided by for-profit managements that dictate who shares their rooms, what and when they eat, who can visit them, when they can do their washing and what facilities their children enjoy.
As I have written many times before, Ireland must close the Direct Provision system that racializes, dehumanizes and segregates asylum seekers, whose plight Irish society “manages not to know.” This continues decades of disavowal, as Una Mullally has recently written in The Irish Times, “The Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries were hiding in plain sight for years. We knew they existed, we knew – in broad brushstrokes – what went on there. Direct Provision centres hide more successfully in our communities, towns and cities. Many of us are not aware of their locations. That makes their presence even more insidious. But we know that they’re there. We know this system exists. We can’t keep repeating the process of unjustly hiding people away. They are not less than. They are people just like us, with families and aspirations.”
Together with the current rise of racism and Islamophobia, asylum seekers are being targeted by many racial states. In Australia’s inhuman off shore concentration camps asylum seekers are deprived of water and food and are beginning to be infected by cholera, as the camps are being closed. Israel too is beginning to close its concentration camps in the south of the country, forcing asylum seekers to either be willingly deported to Rwanda (which is being paid $5,000 dollars for each person it admits) or face indefinite jail. Ireland’s Direct Provision system, while not quite so deadly, condemns asylum seekers to a frozen existence in DP centres where private for-profit operators such as the international catering company Aramark are paid millions of euro to maintain Ireland’s version of what the African American activist Angela Davis terms ‘the prison industrial complex.’
Besides the obvious benefits to the Irish economy of allowing asylum seekers to work, pay taxes and spend money, and beside the obvious human benefits to Irish society of their talents and enterprise, there is also the moral imperative of Ireland’s choice to close the dehumanizing Direct Provision system, end all deportations, and use Ireland’s new wealth to include asylum seekers in solving our appalling housing crisis. The time to act is now.
When Larry Gordon, a member of the progressive Dublin Food Co Op recently told a niqab-wearing Muslim woman that she has no right to come to shop for organic produce at the Co Op and refused to apologise for his racist and Islamophobic outburst, a white Co Op member told me, after I intervened, that ‘veiled women put all of us women in Europe in grave danger’ and protested when I told her Islamophobia comes in all shades. This racist incident, still to be resolved by the Co Op board, is an omen of the ‘I am not a racist but’ Ireland, particularly as we are facing an ethnic minority gay Taoiseach who however disavows racism and denigrates migrants, poor people and disabled people.
On the face of it, having supported immigration into Ireland and having been actively involved in resisting racism and discrimination of LGBT and disabled people for many years, why am I less that delighted that Ireland’s next Taoiseach is the son of an Indian migrant and an openly gay man? After all, Ireland’s record of electing ethnic minority politicians is very poor: apart from three Jewish TDs, a single Muslim TD and a couple of African and Traveller local politicians, Ireland has consistently upheld white supremacy, while protesting its non-racialism and continuing to incarcerate asylum seekers in direct provision hell holes and to treat migrants as mere economic commodities who must emulate ‘our culture’.
Examining Varadkar’s record of focusing on welfare fraud, calling to send home migrants who have become unemployed, not allowing gay parents to adopt children, calling to make mentally disabled people pay for their incarceration in the Central Mental Hospital, and calling upon migrants and refugees to accept ‘Irish culture’ explains why I am so opposed to this (unelected, remember) gay son of an Indian doctor becoming Taoiseach, well beyond my general distaste for Fine Gael’s reactionary conservatism.
Although for many migrants Varadkar’s rise sounds like the immigrant’s dream come true, according to Dublin born half-Asian Dean van Nguyen writing in the Irish Times, there is no reason to get excited by Varadkar, who has shown little interest in migrants or in Ireland’s racial issues. Indeed, while saying ‘I’m somebody who thinks immigration is beneficial. I’m in charge of a health service that is heavily influenced and dependent on migrants, doctors and nurses form overseas. So I’m somebody who believes it is good for our economy and society,’ he called for the deportation of unemployed ‘foreign nationals’ who should be offered three or four months benefits if they agree to go home and forego benefits beyond that. The suggestions, Van Nguyen argues, ‘fed into the trite typecasting that people come to Ireland only to claim benefits, while also undermining all immigrants’ hopes of being accepted in their new homes’. While Varadkar did support accepting a small number of refugees from Syria (in fact only 760 out of the promised 4,000 Syrian and other refugees arrived in Ireland in 2016), he see immigration merely as ‘beneficial’ to Irish state and society and has warned about cultural differences, claiming that ‘people will come to Ireland to work but will actually look down on our culture and look down on our freedoms and liberalisms and think they are wrong’.
For me, Leo Varadkar’s insistence that being the son of a migrant is meaningless signifies what Alana Lentin calls ‘post racialism’: ‘declarations of the end of race ignores the continuing impact of racism upon socio-economic inequality in racial states.’ Post-racialism, closely linked to culturalist solutions to problems seen as originating from excessive cultural diversity, she argues, is firmly set within the history of modern racism, even though most people in Ireland prefer to ignore it, insisting, despite evidence to the contrary, that they are not racist, but that ‘Irish culture’ is endangered by all those immigrants and foreigners.
Varadkar will thus be the first post-racial Taoiseach, whose ‘drawbridge’ mentality insists that while his own migrant father had worked so hard during the ‘tough’ 1980s, today’s migrants should work just as hard and emulate ‘our’ culture, and when becoming unemployed should go back home, because, as he proudly stated in his election campaign video: ‘It’s all about hard work and ambition…’
I want to I present three interlinked propositions about Vukasín Nedeljković’s Asylum Archive exhibition. Firstly, just like Irish state and society had managed to ignore the workhouses, mental asylums, mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools, they also ‘manage not to know’ about the plight of asylum seekers, precisely because direct provision isolates asylum seekers, makes them dependent and makes it difficult for them to organise on a national level. Since ‘managing not to know’, or disavowing, erases the direct provision system from the Irish collective consciousness, I propose that asylum seekers represent the return of Ireland’s repressed, confronting Irish people with their own experiences of e/migration.
The second proposition explores the notion of ‘archive’, defined by Foucault as ‘a storehouse that catalogues the traces of what has been said, to consign them to future memory’, rather than as a ‘library that gathers the dust of statements and allows for their resurrection under the historian’s gaze’ (Agamben 1999: 143).
Thirdly, since residents of the direct provision system have been taking action, protesting and representing themselves, they can no longer be theorised merely as Agamben’s ‘bare life’, at the mercy of sovereign power,and must be regarded as active agents of resistance in their own right.
Managing not to know
Denial, according to Stanley Cohen, is always a paradox. In using the term ‘denial’ to describe a person’s statement ‘I didn’t know’, we have to assume she does know what she claims not to know. The public shock about the revelations since the mid-1990s about the incarceration of unmarried women in ‘mother and baby homes’ and ‘Magdalene laundries’ and about the abuse of thousands of children in Irish ‘industrial schools’ represents a disavowal of something Irish people knew but were repressing.
Ireland has an appalling history of incarceration, having locked up 31,000 people at any given time between 1926 and 1951, or one in every 100 citizens, in mental hospitals, Magdalene laundries, ‘mother and baby’ homes and industrial schools, continuing the legacy of the 1838 Irish Poor Law and the 130 workhouses catering for the destitute poor. This also applied to children – one child in every hundred was enslaved in an industrial school.
Irish institutions of incarceration were located in towns and cities throughout the country which meant that claiming ‘not to know’ was disingenuous. According to Fintan O’Toole, the system served to warn the disobedient: it was family members who forced pregnant daughters into Magdalene Laundries or ‘mother and baby homes’ and the hapless children of ‘bad’ or poor mothers into industrial schools where many were abused. The harm done to the incarcerated also taught ‘a whole society very deep habits of collusion, evasion and adaptation’.
The denial – of what we actually know – can be illuminated by Freud’s work on the unfamiliar or ‘uncanny’: ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ which can become uncanny and frightening’. And, he writes, we often repress that which we are afraid of, which is familiar and known to us yet becomes estranged in the process of repression. And the repressed always returns to haunt.
I propose that the 1990s revelations about the Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools that Irish society was forced to acknowledge was the return of Ireland’s repressed and preceded the choice not to know about asylum seekers dispersed to direct provision centres and living in intolerable conditions, due to their racialization and dehumanisation, removal from sight, and construction as a (financial) ‘burden’.
Like its history of incarceration, Ireland’s refugee reception history is also shocking. Having refused to admit more than 60 Jewish refugees during the Nazi era between 1933 and 1946, Ireland accepted small groups of ‘Programme Refugees’ since 1956.Asylum seekers (‘Convention Refugees’) began arriving in Ireland in the early 1990s and in July 2016 4,208 people, including 1,100 children, were housed in 35 direct provision centres. Many centres are run by for-profit companies costing the state more than 50 million euro per annum.
I propose that Irish people are adopting an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to asylum seekers in direct provision. The disavowal of asylum seekers’ living conditions makes direct provision centres ‘zones of exception’ which, according to Agamben, positions residents outside the law, between inside and outside. Direct provision centres, like similar ‘state-sponsored enclaves of non-existent rights’, ‘signal a sort of surplus of “bare life” that can no longer be contained within the political order of nation-states’ yet cannot be entirely disposed of, and is thus trapped in between spaces and statuses’. Thus isolated, asylum seekers, like residents of Ireland’s workhouses, mental hospitals, industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and ‘mother and baby homes’, are perched at the edge of Irish life, and disavowed as Irish society ‘manages not to know’ of their existence.
In 2002 I argued that asylum seekers, refugees and migrants represented the return of the repressed for an Ireland reluctant to confront the pain of e/migration. In 2016, with 16 years of direct provision, very low refugee acceptance rates, and with emigration again becoming a major social force – disavowal is again apparent. The familiar of forced emigration is returning to haunt Ireland’s collective consciousness, making Irish people disavow, yet again, the plight of people seeking refuge in their midst. In the process Freud’s familiar becomes unfamiliar, uncanny and frightening, enabling the denial not of what ‘we’ do not know, but of what ‘we’ know only too well.
In the light of Ireland’s disavowal and of ‘managing not to know’ about the direct provision system, I propose that Vukasín Nedeljković’s Asylum Archive is an archive of silence and secrets, challenging Irish society to confront the return of its repressed pain of incarceration and e/migration. Deliberately not representing the humans warehoused by the state in the direct provision centres, this archive of silence nonetheless makes visible these humans, which one might be tempted to theorize as Agamben’s ‘bare life’ – s/he who lives at the mercy of the sovereign state and who can be killed, deported or transferred with impunity, yet whose life is banned from the sacred realm of Irishness.
If Foucault’s archive aims to consign the items archived to future memory rather than simply serve the historians’ gaze, then Asylum Archive does much more. In representing the detritus of the poorhouses of Ireland’s present, the traces of robbed humanity, and the glimpses of the skies of hope and flight, Asylum Archive helps us remember that the humans incarcerated in varying states of deportability, cannot be merely thought of as ‘bare life’ and – in view of their resistance – must be regarded as active agents in their own right.
Beyond ‘bare life’
During 2014 asylum seekers staged a series of protests. Among other things, protesters spoke of inadequate food, of being unable to cook for their families, about management providing out of date, insufficient food served at specific hours and not available out of hours, leaving many children hungry.
Though I initially wanted to theorise asylum seekers as Agamben’s ‘bare life’, inmates in what he calls the ‘camp’ system, a pure space of exception, which ‘distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside’, their lives controlled by RIA and its agents – management and staff of the direct provision centres, this theorization was ultimately inadequate, particularly since Agamben’s ‘bare life’ is deeply Eurocentric and ignores race, while the direct provision system is deeply racialized. The disavowal of race ignores the everyday lived experiences of racial discrimination experienced by people seeking refuge from persecution, war, conflict and oppression, at the hands of white Irish state and society.
Furthermore, Agamben’s ‘bare life’ theory posits asylum seekers as passive subjects to whom everything is done, often in arbitrary and violent ways, rather than as active agents of resistance. Indeed, the 2014 protests by asylum seekers, and let me remind you there were also asylum seekers’ protests during the 1990s by ARASI – the Association of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ireland, who were taken over by the white Irish SPIRASI – led to the establishment of MASI – Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland. The protests demonstrate that theorising asylum seekers in direct provision merely as ‘bare life’ subject to sovereign rule is Eurocentric and that the protests are ‘acts of resistance’ in the best sense of the word.
Together with these protests and the campaigns by a variety of supporters, Asylum Archive, in archiving and making visible the silences and disavowed experiences of asylum seekers in Ireland, means that the repressed is returning to haunt and we can no longer ignore the clear demands made by asylum seekers: end the direct provision system, regularise all residents, and end all deportations.