Providing essential PPE in direct provision- The Sanctuary Masks Initiative

May 8, 2020
Photos by Clare Keogh

Written by IGHN Key Correspondent, Ellen O’Hanrahan, 2nd Year Nursing Student, University College Cork

3rd of May 2020

On the 27th of March 2020, an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar announced people should stay at  home, physically distance and only make essential journeys, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. These new measures would prove impossible to implement for refugees and asylum seekers living in direct provision.

There are over 6300 people in Ireland living in overcrowded direct provision centres. Many residents are frontline workers and are given no choice but to live with those at high risk. There is no room to physically distance. Bedrooms, bathrooms and cooking facilities are shared between families. Dr. Eamonn Faller, an infectious disease registrar at Cork University Hospital described the centres as “powder kegs for COVID-19”

The Department of Justice and Equality announced plans for self-isolation units to be set up in direct provision centres across the country. However, The units would be for people with symptoms of COVID-19 still leaving many people at great risk of infection. NASC,  the Irish refugee and migrant rights advocacy group viewed the government’s efforts as falling short and in response launched the ‘Move The Vulnerable Out’ campaign. The campaign aims put pressure on the Department of Justice to move people out of direct provision into more suitable accommodation like hotels or empty student apartment complexes.

The urgency of NASC’s plea has been highlighted in recent news when 21 positive cases of COVID-19 were reported at The Skellig Star Hotel in Co. Kerry on the 29th of April. 90 Asylum seekers were moved to Kerry from three different Dublin centres in response to the outbreak. Nobody was tested for the virus before the transfer. Authorities reported that  positive cases have since be moved to isolation units in Cork. Around 80 residents remain at the centre, all have been potentially exposed to COVID-19.

One resident of the centre, Azwar Furad (38), spoke to RTE news on the 29th of April: “I don’t think we can come out of this trap. This building is fully infected and we have to be removed from here. This building should be professionally disinfected”.The department insists that all HSE social distancing guidelines are adhered to at the centre, Residents say that this is impossible. When asked whether residents would be moved out the department refused to comment.

Fuelled by government inaction and a desire to protect the themselves and other vulnerable members of the community, a group of 20 women living in direct provision in Cork started The Sanctuary Masks Initiative. The women, all skilled seamstresses, began to make washable hygiene masks. The initiative is led by Olga Voytenko, a Russian resident of the Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre. It is spearheaded by the Cork based charity Bettertogether and The Cork Migrant Centre, with the support of UCC University of Sanctuary, UCC Failte Refugees and the UCC feminist society.

Each mask is made in accordance with HSE and WHO guidelines and public health experts were consulted prior to their production. An information leaflet is provided with each mask. The leaflet explains, in several languages how to use and wash the masks.

An art competition was held between teenagers living in the Cork centres to select the mask’s graphic illustration and logo. Many of the teenagers were children of the women who run the initiative. The production of masks and the teenagers artwork saw two generations coming together to create such a crucial product.

Each woman is paid a wage for their work. The Initiative provides an important source of income especially since some of the women have lost their jobs due to the crisis. To date  3704 masks have been made, packaged and distributed. The initiative aims to make 40,000 masks to supply all direct provision centres in Cork as well as other vulnerable populations.

The Sanctuary Masks initiative is a testament to the hard work and camaraderie of these  women. In these uncertain times, we must strive to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, just as they have done. To come together in solidarity and move the vulnerable out before it is too late.


To support the initiative Sanctuary masks aims to raise €15,000, donations can be made through More information is available from [email protected] and @sanctuarymaskinitiative on Instagram.

‘Sanctuary Mask Initiative’ women 
Head of Creative and Production, ‘Sanctuary Mask Initiative’ Olga Voytenko, and her daughter Sofya Abashko, ‘Sanctuary Mask Initiative’ working in The Cork Migrant Centre in the grounds of Nano Nagle Place, Cork City
The Sanctuary Mask Initiative is an initiative by women living in direct provision centres to help themselves and other vulnerable people living in the community, in response to the COVID 19 pandemic. SMI is an initiative spearheaded by BetterTogether and the Cork Migrant Centre, with the support of the UCC University of Sanctuary, UCC Feminist and Fáilte Refugees Societies.
The Sanctuary Mask Initiative (SMI) recruits’ women living in Direct Provision Centres to produce hygiene masks to distribute to residence in Direct Provision, the elderly in nursing homes and other vulnerable groups. Each of the women involved in the project have been supplied with a sewing machine, fabric and necessary supplies needed for the manufacturing of washable hygiene masks. The masks are made using pure cotton and linin, which are breathable, non-irritant and do shrink.
The production of the masks is coordinated by Olga Voytenko, a seamstress and resident of Kinsale Rd Accommodation Centre, who has set up her own sewing and alteration business in the heart of Cork City. Each of the women involved in the project are themselves skilled seamstresses and are given a wage for their labour (in accordance with their rights to work status). Charlotte Cargin from Charlotte and Jane, a Kinsale based design label, is the fashion design consultant on this project.
Picture Clare Keogh
Further Information
Vera Stojanovic,
Mobile 087 442 46 97
Find us on Facebook at BetterTogetherCork
For more information visit our website at
PRESS RELEASE and Further Information
The Sanctuary Mask Initiative is an initiative by women living in direct provision cent


IGHN Conference 2024 – Speakers

Irish Global Health Network Conference  ...

Conflict and Health: Exploring Health Challenges in Current Conflicts

Date: June – August 2024 Location: Online, via Zoom...

IGHN Conference 2024 – Abstract Submission

  Irish Global Health Network Conference  ...

Leadership Essentials in Global Health, Five-Day Summer Programme – 2024

Date: August 19-23, 2024 Location: Dublin, Ireland  ...

IGHN Film Screening: The 8th

When: Monday 8th April 2024 at 17:30 Where: Lighthouse...


Subscribe to Newsletter

Sign up to become a member and receive our weekly updates