Activist Bulelani Mfaco speaks about the urgent need to dismantle Direct Provision

As part of the #StrongerTogether initiative, activist Bulelani Mfaco spoke about the need to dismantle Ireland's Direct Provision system.

The image is a headshot of MASI activist Bulelani Mfaco. He is standing in front of a red wall wearing a white jacket and light blue shirt. He has long hair tied in a bun.
Image: Hazel Coonagh

As we celebrate Pride Month across this island, we must confront the harsh reality that our community faces a rising tide of disinformation, scapegoating and hate. It’s time again for us to channel our collective pain and anger into action for social justice. As part of the #StrongerTogether initiative in collaboration with the Rowan Trust and the Hope and Courage collective, GCN interviewed Bulelani Mfaco, spokesperson with the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI). He discussed how being raised in apartheid South Africa informed his activism and the need to dismantle Ireland’s Direct Provision system.

When Bulelani Mfaco was a secondary student in South Africa, he and his fellow classmates marched to government buildings.

“We had gone for months without receiving learning materials like textbooks and workbooks,” Bulelani explained. “Generally, the South African government provides these for each school year, but it’s delivered through provincial administrations.

“It was August and there had been no delivery of textbooks for the school year which began in January. Our student representatives sought support for a protest to government offices,” he continued.

“The offices were in the CBD in Cape Town and we were in Khayelitsha – on the outskirts of the city. We walked from school to the nearest train station, ran through barricades at the station and boarded the train. Police arrived and there were hundreds of students so they couldn’t possibly get us out of the train without calling for backup or causing delays for hours. They let us travel to town.

“When we arrived in Cape Town CBD, we were greeted by riot police who escorted us to the government buildings we were marching to. Struggle songs dominate protests in South Africa. Songs that would have been sung during anti-apartheid marches. When a Black person hears them, they will sing along even if they are not part of the protesting group. So as we marched through the CBD, we received a lot of support.

“Seeing the public’s reaction to the protest ignited a passion in me to challenge the status quo,” Bulelani continued.

According to Bulelani Mfaco, it was this protest he attended as a teenager, as well as the repercussions of being a “Black, gay, Mpondo man” living in Apartheid South Africa that led him to a life of activism.

“I lived in a Ghetto that was created by the Apartheid government for Black people in Cape Town which has always been under-served,” Bulelani continued. “So naturally I got involved in protesting for access to land and basic services like water, sanitation, healthcare and the like. My circumstances called on me to protest and there was always a community around me with similar views.”

In more recent years, after relocating to Ireland as an asylum-seeker, Bulelani has set his sights on dismantling the country’s Direct Provision system. Bulelani himself was placed in the system in 2017. At the time, he recalled, he was invited to join a protest hosted by the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), though he declined this initial invitation.

“MASI was formed by asylum seekers in Direct Provision to collectively campaign for an end to Direct Provision, for the right to work for all asylum seekers, the right to education and against the deportation regime. Today, MASI does that campaign work and provides peer-to-peer support to asylum seekers. We have weekly meetings where asylum seekers from Direct Provision centres across Ireland gather. We also organise information sessions for asylum seekers who are new to the country,” Bulelani explained.

For those who may not be aware of what the reviled system entails, Bulelani shared: “In April 2000, the Irish government rolled out the system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers by removing them from the general welfare system. This meant that instead of accessing benefits like Irish citizens, asylum seekers would have their needs met in kind.

“The state contracts the provision of a bed and three meals a day to private companies and pays a petty weekly allowance to asylum seekers. This allowance was set at €19.10 per week when the system was rolled out and remained unchanged for more than a decade. Today it’s €38.80 per week and the government refuses to increase it. In the last two adjustments to welfare payments, the weekly allowance for asylum seekers remained unchanged,” he continued.

When it came to the effect of Direct Provision on accommodation for asylum seekers, Bulelani described that, in order to maximise profit, “Operators of Direct Provision centres force strangers to share intimate living spaces, including a bedroom, for years. In some cases, an entire family unit (a family of five for instance) can be expected to stay in a single hotel room for many years.

“For LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, this can mean sharing intimate living spaces like a bedroom with strangers who hate you for who you are. Today, asylum seekers can be moved from one part of the country to another with no say on the matter. Some asylum seekers are allowed to work and some are not. Those who are not allowed to work have to watch others go on with their lives and see the positive changes that work brings to a person’s life. It is cruel.”

Bulelani Mfaco is not alone in his call to dismantle Direct Provision. In fact, he shared that “numerous human rights bodies, including several UN committees, have criticised the system of Direct Provision and called for its abolition. There is no excuse for denying people their basic/ fundamental human rights so Direct Provision should be abolished. Any system that takes away our innate human dignity ought to be condemned and dismantled.

“[Direct Provision is] also racist and encourages racism to flourish as the segregated nature of Direct Provision creates conditions for racist far right organisers to spread myths about the segregated group.”

That being said, Bulelani is excited about the progress that MASI and other human rights organisations have made towards its abolishment. While many of these victories may seem small in the grand scheme of things, Bulelani said even the smallest bits of good news are enough to make his day.

MASI has aided many asylum seekers to overcome the influence of Direct Provision on their lives. Bulelani shared the following anecdote:

“A woman we supported through the asylum process kept updating us. One day she texted that she got her status. She was recognised as a refugee. This is huge because this meant that she could finally live without fearing that she would be deported and returned to her site of trauma. The next text was her telling us that she wanted to go to university. She texted again confirming admission.

“Then she needed funding. She sent a text later confirming that she got funding. She texted when she was looking to move out of Direct Provision and later texted saying she found a place. I suspect her next text will be about graduation from college. Life would be more enjoyable if she did not face barriers when accessing any of those services from housing to education.

“At the core of MASI’s work is challenging structural racism so that she and many others would not have to constantly face barriers for having sought sanctuary in Ireland.”

This story originally appeared in GCN’s Pride issue 378, as part of an ongoing feature on solidarity that was created in cooperation with the Rowan Trust and the Hope and Courage Collective. You can read this interview with Bulelani Mfaco and other activists in the full issue here

Want to be featured in this special campaign? Share a message of solidarity using #StrongerTogether, tagging GCN or email [email protected].


© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 378 (June 1, 2023). Click here to read it now.

Support GCN

GCN has been a vital, free-of-charge information service for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community since 1988.

During this global COVID pandemic, we like many other organisations have been impacted greatly in the way we can do business and produce. This means a temporary pause to our print publication and live events and so now more than ever we need your help to continue providing this community resource digitally.

GCN is a registered charity with a not-for-profit business model and we need your support. If you value having an independent LGBTQ+ media in Ireland, you can help from as little as €1.99 per month. Support Ireland’s free, independent LGBTQ+ media.

0 comments. Please sign in to comment.

Proud Warriors

Issue 378 June 1, 2023

June 1, 2023

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 378 (June 1, 2023).

Read Now