Asylum Archive: An Archive of Asylum and Direct Provision in Ireland
I receive a postcard covered with butterflies; yellow butterflies with white dots, purple butterflies with white dots, green butterflies with green dots and blue butterflies. I look at the postcard. I hold the postcard. The tears roll over my cheeks on to the postcard. My window is divided in half. There are yellow marks at both sides of the window. The mark on the left side of the window is bigger and wider than the mark on the right side of the window. There are fields in the distance. They seem too far away. I can't see the greenness of the fields. It rains almost every day. The fields are becoming greener every minute. I want to see the fields with my tired, sleepless eyes. I am afraid to leave room 24. I am not able to smell the fields. They are just round the corner. There are walls and barriers on the way.
I bite my nails; the drops of blood roll over my finger. I look at my hand; in my room, on the piece of paper, I write down “lost” using the same blood. On a different piece of paper I also write “lonely.” The sun is coming through the dirt of my window. I see the children playing outside. I smell the chicken nuggets and chips. It is dinnertime soon.
From April 2007 to November 2009, I was housed in a Direct Provision Centre while seeking asylum in Ireland. Asylum Archive originally started as a coping mechanism during this time. I kept myself intact by capturing and communicating with the environment through photographs and videos. This creative process helped me to overcome confinement and incarceration. The main objective of Asylum Archive is to collaborate with asylum seekers, artists, academics, and civil society activists, amongst others, with a view to creating an interactive documentary cross-platform online resource, which critically brings forward accounts of exile, displacement, trauma, and memory. While the Asylum Archive project creates a repository of asylum experiences and artefacts, my practice-based doctoral project at the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice, Dublin Institute of Technology, examines a particular time in recent Irish history from the inception of the direct provision dispersal system in 1999 to the present day.
Direct Provision Centres are disciplinary and exclusionary forms of spatial and social closure that separate and conceal asylum seekers from mainstream society and ultimately prevent their long term integration or inclusion. They are, as Erving Goffman argues, “[t]otal institutions…the forcing houses for changing persons in our society. Each is a natural experiment, typically harsh, on what can be done to the self” (1971, 243). The Direct Provision Scheme is a continuation of the history of confinement in Ireland through borstals, laundries, prisons, mother and baby homes, and lunatic asylums. When the Irish state initiated the Direct Provision Scheme, it deliberately constructed a space where institutional racism could be readily instantiated, explicitly through, for example, the threat of transfer to a different accommodation centre or deportation. In this sense, Direct Provision Centres are, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “the absence of everything... the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, or the murmur of silence” (1987, 46).
The direct provision scheme was introduced in Ireland in November 1999 to accommodate asylum seekers in state designated accommodation centres. There are more than 120 centres located across the country, some of which include former convents, army barracks, hotels, and holiday homes. Most of the centres are situated outside cities on the periphery of society. The decision to house asylum seekers in remote state centres significantly reduces their possibilities for integration, leaving them to dwell in a ghettoized environment.
Asylum seekers live in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, where families with children are often forced to share small rooms. The management controls their food intake, their movements, the supply of bed linen, and cleaning materials exerting their authority, power, and control. According to Ronit Lentin, direct provision centres are “holding camps” which “construct their inmates as deportable subjects, ready to be deported any time” (2012). Similarly, the Free Legal Advice Centre states that these privately owned centres, administered by the Government of Ireland, constitute a “direct provision industry,” which makes a profit on the backs of asylum seekers (2009, 26).
Issues of governance, exile, displacement, trauma, and memory have preoccupied many scholars and are helping me make sense of my experiences and the direct provision scheme. For instance, the photographer and theorist Allan Sekula describes Bentham’s idea of the panopticon where “the principle of supervision takes on an explicit industrial capitalist character: his prisons were to function as profit- making establishments, based on the private contracting-out of convict labor” (1986, 9). Sekula observes that for Foucault, “panopticism” provides the central metaphor for modern disciplinary power based on isolation, individuation, and supervision. He also contends that “[t]he archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress” (2003, 451). Diana Taylor’s work explores how the “archive and the repertoire work together to make political claims, transmit traumatic memory, and forge a new sense of cultural identity,” arguing that “trauma expresses itself viscerally, through bodily symptoms, re-enactments and repeats” in which “individual and collective memory and trauma are linked” (2003, 51). N. Jade Gibson similarly observes that “displacement [can be] articulated as a form of material auto-ethnography through embodied and sensory means” (2013, 533). This is the case in Asylum Archive, where the personal experience of direct provision is the context from which analysis is drawn.
Asylum Archive is not a singular art project that stands “outside of society” engaged in an internal conversation; rather, it is a platform open for dialogue and discussion inclusive of individuals who have experienced a sense of sociological/geographical displacement, trauma, violence, and memory loss. Indeed, as Arjun Appadurai has astutely argued: “Memory, for migrants, is almost always the memory of loss.” Such losses are tinged with anxiety because “the memory of the journey to a new place, the memory of one’s own life and family world in the old place, and official memory about the nation one has left have to be recombined in a new location” (2016, 21). Direct Provision Centres are “non-places” where asylum seekers establish their new identity through the process of negotiating belonging in a current locality. Asylum Archive enables researchers and scholars to explore this process through its collection of visual, affective, and educational artefacts.on the apparatus of control.
Appadurai, Arjun. 2003. “Archive and Aspiration.” In Information is Alive, edited by Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder, 14-25. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.
FLAC. 2009. One Size Doesn’t Fit All: A Legal Analysis of the Direct Provision and Dispersal System in Ireland, 10 Years On. Dublin: FLAC.
Gibson, N. Jade. 2013. “Visual Ethnographies of Displacement and Violence.” Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 27.5: 531-552.
Goffman, Erving. 1971. “Characteristics of Total Institutions.” In Law and Society, edited by Abraham Goldstein and Joseph Goldstein, 239-268. New York: The Free Press.
Lentin, Ronit. 2012. “Anti-Deportation Ireland: End Deportations Now.” Free Radikal, October 4. http://www.ronitlentin.net/2012/10/04/anti-deportation-ireland-end-deportations-now.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1987. Time and the Other and Additional Essays. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Sekula, Allan. 1986. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39: 3-64.
———. 2003. “Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital.” In The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells, 443-452. London: Routledge.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.