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Shalini Singh
Shalini Singh


'The global migrant crisis is modern day slavery'

still-from A till from the film I Am Not Here

Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar is best known for his documentaries on Kashmir that won him two National Awards and a short film, Little Terrorist, that won him an Academy Award nomination.

His new film titled, I Am Not Here, is produced by the United Nations Human Rights office, deals with the issue of global migrant crisis. The crisis is narrated through the stories of three women from Zurich, New York and Kuala Lumpur, who went through different tales of anguish in the search for a better life.

The team behind the film -- Ashvin Kumar, Pia Oberoi and Christina MacGillivaray -- spoke to THE WEEK.

Excerpts from the interview:

What led you to make 'I Am Not here'?

Ashvin Kumar: The UN office of human rights wanted to make a film on this subject to put a human face on the statistics, highlight what is in effect modern day slavery. The brief was to make a film on undocumented domestic workers in New York, Zurich and Kuala Lumpur. Our co producer Christina performed an exhaustive search which threw up a short-list, from which we selected the women you see in the film, as their stories were remarkable of course but also balanced each other out and explored the broad themes of the issue. We didn’t want to do a facts-statistics Nat-Geo type documentary that may miss elements. I wanted to go behind the figures and the statistics and tell the emotional story about these women, real people with real families and ties. My attempt was to link the lived experience of the audience with those on screen — themes like a mother separated by economic necessity from her child for over two decades. I wanted to put the audience in those shoes.

After two films on Kashmir, your latest deals with three countries. What was that like?

AK: The biggest challenge was drawing out emotive moments in two languages that I didn’t understand. There is also a limit of how many times you can ask the translator to stop the flow of the conversation and translate what has just been said! Particularly on such sensitive matters, that the interviewee would rather forget – getting them to that point where they are ready to share is one thing, and constantly interrupting can kill those moments. So, I had to do quick paraphrasing of what had been said – enough to compose another question – but after a while I just had to shut up and focus on looking into their eyes and listening to the tone of the voice.

As for Kashmir and the three countries, the way of drawing people out, getting them to recall uncomfortable memories and having canned about 500 hours of footage in Kashmir certainly helped. Most of the interviews in the Kashmir films were in Urdu/Hindi so language wasn’t an issue. But I still had to reckon with people’s suspicion of my agenda, being an ‘Indian’ and the general security situation which led to a reluctance to open up. At the end of the day, people are people. A mother separated from her child due to economic hardship (Bolivia) or due to an enforced disappearance (Kashmir), no matter what nationality, is an emotive subject.

Could you put in perspective the migrant crisis across the world, from the research and experience of your film?

Pia Oberoi, advisor on migration and human rights, office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: There are currently more than 242 million international migrants, of which some 10-15 per cent are in an irregular administrative situation. The word ‘migrant’ describes a diverse array of people who move to and live in a country that is not their own. A significant, indeed growing, proportion of these people are in a very vulnerable and precarious situation, from refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, to other ‘forced migrants’ who are seeking not just better opportunities but a life with some sort of dignity. Such migrants are often invisible in our societies, many doing the jobs that nationals will not want to do, but nonetheless unable to receive protection and access services that many take for granted. Migrant domestic workers in particular are often extremely vulnerable, as they work in private homes, their work and situations often hidden from public scrutiny, and in many countries labour law does not apply to them.

Irregular migrants are often too scared to complain about their treatment, whether at the hands of employers or others such as police and other public officials, as they are in constant fear of detention and deportation.

How do you see the situation of migrant domestic workers in India? Do you feel there might be a change in the coming times?

AK: A lot of us have domestic help in our homes in India, hopefully a sensitisation of what people endure to make sure we have a comfortable life. Also, the issue of undocumented domestic migrants is modern day slavery, as you’ve seen in the film, just it isn’t really called that. I hope people will see this as a serious problem. That nations who have been implied in this film will develop proper protections and laws, because these women and migrants are needed for the economies of the countries that they work in. It would make sense that policies are re-written keeping in mind the globalised world and movement of labour, rather than the rigid nation-state boundaries which is very much an idea of the past.

PO: Migrant domestic workers in India, both international and internal migrants, are subject to the same abuse and vulnerabilities that characterise the situation of domestic workers everywhere. Some of the issues faced by many migrant domestic workers in India include the lack of formal contracts, poor bargaining power, no legislative protection, and inadequate welfare measures with little provision for weekly holidays, maternity leave and health benefits. Women and girls, who disproportionately make up the bulk of domestic workers are particularly at risk of sexual and gender-based violence. All are vulnerable to physical abuse and even exploitation. Some state governments have attempted to introduce measures to protect domestic workers, but much more needs to be done to ensure that their rights are protected in practice.

Could you contextualise the situation faced by the three women in your film with the recent cases in India that came to light, such as the Saudi diplomat?

PO: Wherever domestic work is not considered as work, and wherever domestic workers are not treated with dignity and accorded the rights to which they are entitled as human beings, we will see the kind of abuse, vulnerability and exploitation that the film brings to light. As an important first step, India should ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, as well as ILO Convention No. 189 on Domestic Work.

Anything else that you would like to add about the film or the issues it deals with?

Christina MacGillivaray, co-producer and lead researcher: It was a grassroot door-to-door research effort. In most cases people in an undocumented situation in any country fear sharing their stories because the risk of deportation and arrest are too great. Why come forward on film if you are risking your safety? The safety and education of your children? It is difficult. To gain trust – I first went through dozens of nonprofits across the three continents, but no less you need to speak to a person on the ground in a city in order for them to understand you are here to help. In New York City – it started in one woman’s living room. She gave me another number. I trekked across the city, spoke to another woman – and it went on and on like this.

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