ONLY for his photography, Vukasin Nedeljkovic, a former asylum seeker originally from Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, would have gone mad from boredom and purposelessness during his three years in direct provision. But thanks to his background in photography (he has a BA in the art form) and his small Olympus camera which he brought with him to Ireland, Vukasin found a reason to get up every day, photographing his surroundings as well as taking external shots of the other direct provision centres around the country. (He wasn’t allowed into the other centres.)
Vukasin has an exhibition at Triskel which continues until March 29. Entitled ‘Asylum Archive’, there is nothing pretty about this series of photographs. They depict the stark reality of the lives of asylum seekers (approximately 6,000 in all) and “the appalling way they are treated when they come here seeking protection,” says Vukasin.
“We have a history of incarceration in this country with the Magdalene Laundries, the mother and baby homes and industrial schools. Direct provision centres are a continuation of this. The last Magdalene Laundry in Sean McDermott Street closed in 1996 and the first direct provision centre opened in 1999.”
There are no people in the large photographs. They depict everything from a grimy window out of which Vukasin peered to bunk beds in a functional bedroom. There is also a number of small brass plates on a wall of the gallery that are not inscribed. These acknowledge people who have died in direct provision, the reasons for which are not known in a considerable number of cases. According to Vukasin, at least seventy asylum seekers have died in state care. A report in The Irish Catholic in 2017 claimed the cause of death in one in three deaths in direct provision is not known.
Vukasin’s reason for not photographing the residents of the 36 direct provision centres in Ireland is because people are ‘extremely vulnerable.’
“I don’t want to portray people because that could be somehow exotic and romanticising them. I decided to focus on the ghosts; what’s left after people have been deported or transferred to a different centre. The exhibition (which is documented in a book) is of ephemera, the traces and the remnants of people. Humans are present in their invisibility.”
In 2006, Vukasin made a speech critical of the government in his country.
“I was very critical because we fought for ten years to over throw Slobodan Milosevic. Then the government was slow to expel the Serbian war criminals. Also, everything was privatised. I recorded the speech in Belgrade but it wasn’t broadcast on radio until I reached Ireland. It wouldn’t have been safe for me to stay in Belgrade.”
Vukasin spent two months in direct provision in Dublin, followed by New Ross for six months and then Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo for two years. He found it very hard.
“When you’re an asylum seeker, you’re not a name anymore. Everyone communicates with you through your reference number.
“I was on my own. It was terrible until I found a purpose. I started taking photographs in my room and of a playground (two swings suspended over a mucky patch constitute a playground captured in one of the photos). I took photos of a canteen. The photographs are the foundation of what is going to be my Masters which I’m doing at IADT (Institute of Art, Design and Technology) in Dun Laoighaire.”
Now living in Phibsborough in Dublin with his Irish artist wife, Siobhan Wilmot, and their ten year-old child, Vukasin says he still carries the scars of the direct provision system.
“I can’t imagine being in the system for 13 years with a deportation order and the impact of that on you psychologically. That is the case for some of the people I met over the years. I found a purpose to document the centres so we don’t forget about them. The creative process helped me to overcome confinement and incarceration.”
While Vukasin is one of the luckier ones relative to those that linger, often for more than a decade in direct provision, he is angry at the way asylum seekers are treated.
“Conditions for the right to work are terrible. If you’re refused refugee status at your interview, you are not allowed work in Ireland. It’s a disgrace. I’m amazed that a lot of people still don’t know about it.”
Vukasin’s work has been made possible by an Arts Council Artist in the Community Scheme Bursary Award last year and he has also just received a bursary from the arts office of Cork City Council. But he wants to draw attention to direct provision as being in effect and “open prison.”
“When I was living in Ballyhaunis on the €19 a week allowance, a bus ticket to Galway cost more than that. So it was impossible in a one street town to go anywhere. Basically, you spend most of the time in your room. That has a detrimental impact on your mental health,” he said.
Vukasin met his wife at an art project in Castlebar.
“I came to the first session but stood up to say to the organisers that I wouldn’t be able to make it on time in future. Siobhan said she would give me a lift. So that’s how we met.”
While acknowledging “absolutely superb initiatives” such as the work of the Glucksman Gallery facilitating young residents of direct provision centres in artistic pursuits at the venue, Vukasin says that on a political level, there is no will to change.
“Direct provision is here to stay because Ireland doesn’t want more people coming here. That’s my belief. I haven’t experienced any racism because I’m white and speak ok English. But lots of people have experienced not only institutional racism through the operation of direct provision but individual racism as well.”
Vukasin is worried about the rise of nationalism and the far right. He says he tries to be “apolitical because maybe I was too political at home.”
Vukasin feels sorry for the children who have been brought to Ireland by their parents and end up in direct provision.
“These children are living completely institutionalised lives without any facilities. Imagine having a birthday party and not being allowed to invite your friends?”
Since coming to Ireland, Vukasin’s mother has died as well as his two grandmothers. He wasn’t able to return to Belgrade to attend their funerals as he wouldn’t have been allowed back into Ireland had he gone.
“I have only my dad left as I’m an only child. My dad comes here once a year and he loves Dublin.”
Vukasin is currently working on images for a comprehensive book on direct provision with sociology professor and writer, Ronit Lentin . It will be ready by the end of the year or early 2020. Like his exhibition, it will no doubt shine a light on an inhumane system about which “very little has been written.”