Photographer Liam Murphy‘s exhibition of 11 portraits of undocumented people living in Ireland opens this evening at Filmbase.
For the show, called Can You See Me Now?, Murphy says he captured the idea that those he photographed were stepping out of the shadows and into the light.
“I like the idea that they are coming out of the shadow, but also that you could see them, that it wasn’t a silhouette but you could see who they are,” he says.
But he didn’t want them to appear downtrodden. “I saw that they are very proud people, they are very strong and very open,” he says. “So I wanted that to come across in the photographs.”
“Powerful, strong and upbeat, I think there are a lot of the photographs that there is a bit of a smile too,” he says.
Waking Up Early
Priya jokes that she doesn’t like the photograph of her in the exhibition as it doesn’t accentuate her good looks.
The glamourous woman from Mauritius wears a green dress and looks younger than her 41 years.
Being undocumented makes her feel invisible sometimes, she says. “If we sit in the shadows no one will see us. This is the point of the exhibition.”
At her request, we aren’t publishing Priya’s full name, as undocumented people are vulnerable to deportation.
“[Taoiseach Leo] Varadkar says he supports people who wake up early,” says Priya, with a laugh. “So, I wake up at like half five, my friend wakes up at five o’clock … some people are working 24 hours a day as carers.”
She holds out a vague hope that the new taoiseach might take a different approach to migration issues from his predecessors. Justice for the Undocumented, which was set up in 2010 by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), has been campaigning for years for a regularisation scheme.
“[Varadkar] might have his name in the history books, people will be still talking about him,” she says laughing again. “If I get my papers I might vote for him.”
Tired of listening to the Irish government calling for regularisation for the undocumented Irish people in the US, Priya says that all the same things apply to undocumented people living here.
“How can you say that Irish people are contributing to the population in the US? Is it because they are white? And we are not contributing to population here? Is that because we are black?” she says. “You have wood in your eyes my friend. If you take it out you will see more clearly.”
Priya didn’t plan to become an undocumented worker in Ireland.
“I never thought in my life that I would come to Ireland,” she says. “I thought I’d live my life in Mauritius and die in Mauritius and never go to Europe.”
She worked in fashion design for brands like Roxy and Quicksilver, she says, but when the clothing factory she worked in closed, she suddenly had no income to pay her mortgage and take care of her children.
She had a sister living and working in Ireland who suggested she come over, and she was able to get the right paperwork to work and study here.
At first she planned to return to Mauritius, where her aunt was taking care of her children while her husband was at work. But when her aunt died suddenly, she had to make decisions fast.
“It was a huge step we decided to do, me and my husband,” she says. Her husband and children followed her to Ireland – at that time she still had her legal stamp to stay.
The children started school here, and the family have not been back to Mauritius since, she says. “My daughter she is a Dub,” Priya says.
Her daughter was eight when they arrived and her son was nine. “All they know is Ireland. We love Ireland,” she says.
She is worried about their future though. Her son wants to study engineering and her daughter wants to study law, but she can’t afford full fees, and without the right immigration papers they can’t go to university anyway. They, too, are undocumented.
“I’m asking the government to watch over these young people. All they want is a small chance … They have grown up here, they will study here, they will go to work,” she says.
It is not just her own children she is talking about she says. It is for the thousands of undocumented children and young people who live in Ireland.
“This is their age to fly, to learn and explore what life can give them,” she says.
Priya works as a cleaner and is studying to be a carer. She says she’s grateful for the opportunity to study.
“I always imagined to be a nurse, but my father was so poor I couldn’t do that. Now I’m doing this and it’s like a dream come true,” she says. “Dublin is part of me now. Whatever I didn’t find in my country I can find it here in Dublin.”
But being undocumented makes it much harder to progress in the work place; she has a lot of skills but she can’t make use of them.
Many undocumented people are being exploited and paid less than minimum wage too she says, because they are vulnerable and desperate for employment.
She knows people who are working in cleaning or caring for €3 or €4 per hour, she says. “You take it in silence and take what you get.”
You cannot report the exploitation, she says, for fear of drawing the attention of the authorities to yourself. Many are even afraid to report it if they are a victim of a crime, she says.
“Even if you are assaulted you wouldn’t report it in case the Gardaí ask you for your ID,” says Priya.
“Every day Ireland counts on these migrant people to come to work”, but they can’t get a medical card or even apply for a driver’s licence, she says.
The Current System
Aoife Murphy, communications officer for MRCI, says that the current system for applying for regularisation is completely discretionary, and no one knows what the decisions are based on.
“We are asking for defined criteria,” she says.
People can write to the minister to request that their status be regularised, but “nobody knows why some people get rejected and some people get accepted, and if you get rejected you are under a deportation order and you have exposed yourself to the authorities,” she says.
In June, the Justice for the Undocumented group had a bit of a break through when the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality recommended a regularisation scheme, says Murphy. There have been versions of regularisation schemes here, she says.
One was introduced last year for undocumented fishermen, following revelations of severe exploitation at sea. “It’s that easy, you just have to broaden it to the other sectors and it’s better for everyone,” says Murphy.
It is common across Europe to have regularisation schemes. Seventeen other EU countries have already introduced them, says Murphy.
She says that many workers came into Ireland during the Celtic Tiger when there were labour shortages here. “We asked for workers and we got people,” she says.
Can You See Me Now is on at Filmbase in Temple Bar. It opens with a reception today, Wednesday 9 August, at 6:30pm and runs to Saturday 12 August.