SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII) Conference

Father Filippo (1) was one of the panellists at a simultaneous session hosted by the Centre for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) and the University of Notre Dame, entitled “Addressing the Legal Obstacles to Immigrant Integration, Protection and Defence”. The simultaneous sessions were a part of the annual conference hosted by CMS’s Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (2). The CIII conference was held virtually for the first time and was from October 1st – October 2nd and was moderated by Michelle Sardone, the Deputy Director of Programs at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. The theme for this year’s conference was “Building Communities of Belonging and Hope”. The session in which Fr. Filippo was a speaker  was on the second day of the conference, from 12:00pm – 1:15pm ET. This session was set out to try and understand, expand, and strengthen the work of Catholic institutions within immigrant communities.

Throughout the conference a diverse panel of immigrants, refugees, and experts presented their perspectives on the major challenges facing immigrants, refugees, and their families, both in the broader society and in their faith communities, including new challenges related to COVID-19 and related policies. 

All speakers of the conference can be found here (3). 

The conference: 

  • Presented perspectives on the major challenges facing immigrants, refugees, their families and faith communities, at a time of multiple crises;
  • Explored promising and successful programs and ministries with immigrants in parishes, legal services programs, elementary schools, universities, the workplace, charities, community organizing entities, hospitals, and other institutions;
  • Examined how changing national and international immigration and refugee policies are affecting Catholic institutions, their members and those they serve;
  • Explored how Catholic institutions can strengthen their work in promoting the integration, protection, and empowerment of persons with strong roots in sending and receiving communities;
  • Featured an annual address – named after CMS’s co-founder, Fr. Lydio Tomasi, c.s. – on the theological vision underlying the work of Catholic institutions with immigrants and refugees; and,
  • Featured local migrant programs and ministries in the University of Notre Dame regional area.(2)

The annual address was delivered by His Eminence Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, Under-Secretary, Migrants and Refugee Section, Vatican Dicastery for Human Development. The lecture, entitled Mobility and Lockdown: Challenges to the Human highlighted the paradoxical situation of the COVID-19 pandemic on human mobility. The address examined the important ways of going forward with research, work and ministry on behalf of vulnerable people on the move. His Eminence spoke about how lockdown changes the “us” and “them” – prior to the pandemic, the word lock was associated with persons and groups who were not really like us, people we wanted to be kept or locked away. This pandemic has affected everyone, we have all had our mobility and movements severely restricted. The decision to lock down was not just for the benefit of some, it has been for the common good, and we discover that there is just one category now, everyone belongs to the “we”. 

The pandemic has altered the picture of migration. The majority of the people in the world have been displaced in some way – displaced from their normal routines, stable and comfortable lives are uprooted. For so many, normal life is actually not a reality – for migrants and refugees, normal is nowhere close to what would be generally acceptable conditions of life. His Eminence encouraged attendees to exit their self-centred preoccupations and notice and deal with the pain of others. 

For the full address, click here (7). 

Session III on October 2nd - “Addressing the Legal Obstacles to Immigrant Integration, Protection, and Defence” – was part of a group of simultaneous sessions that addressed the cultural and legal obstacles to integration for immigrants and migrants. Panellists for this particular session included – Fr. Filippo Ferraro, C.S., executive director of the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa, Rudy Monterrosa, Adjunct Professor of Law from the University of Notre Dame Law School, and Rev. Mauro Verzeletti, C.S., director of Casa del Migrante of Guatemala. 

After a brief introduction of all the speakers in attendance, the moderator asked the opening question –

Q. Can you describe the main legal obstacles to integration, protection and the defence of migrants and refugees? 

A. Fr. Filippo explained briefly the role of SIHMA and the Sister organisation the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town,  He contextualised African migration and spoke about mixed migration flows with some migrants migrating for economic reasons and other for refugee reasons. He addressed South Africa’s very progressive and broadly applicable refugee legislation post 1994 which included the rights of asylum seekers to work and Study and contrasted this with the strict and narrow application of the Immigration Act. He mentioned how like the USA in the Americas South Africa is a major recipient of migrants particularly from Southern and Central Africa. He went on to address a series of obstacles including good interpretation of the law by the judiciary and good decisions for refugees frequently not being implemented. It is for hard for refugees rights to be recognised he said. He mentioned a couple of examples including irregularities in legislation and slow implementation of legislative reform. In South Africa fair trial rights of migrants arrested to appear within 48 hours of arrest were not respected in terms of immigration legislation and people would spend up to 90 or 120 days without appearing in person before a court as they awaited deportation. The Courts intervened requiring appearance within 48 hours and requiring legislative reform, but this reform was very slow. Many times refugees and migrants rights are compromised and there are huge problems requiring the judiciary to intervene.  Another obstacle is the South African limited or closed down the operations of refugee processing offices (4).  Many refugees would have to travel long distances and encounter many risks and harsh consequences each time they had to renew their documentation. Obstacles facted were and are responded to by strong advocacy initiatives. SIHMA supported and assisted as a research centre and there was a lot of work by our Sister organisation the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT) which has won a series of litigation including ensure access to relief grants for asylum seekers during the pandemic (5) and the case against the unlawful closure of refugee offices (4). Even though the Centre has won still the situation takes time and budget and section of staff create some of obstacles. In conclusion sometimes regulations are in place and other times implementation is where the problem lies. Additionally it appears that sometimes officials attending to refugees make matters worse than needed.  

Q. Can you talk about the activities you are currently running, and some good practises you can encourage (even attempts that didn’t result in success), especially in this last period?

A. As the Scalabrini network (SIMHA, SCCT and Lawrence House) we put in practice many activities and projects, despite the physical closure of the main building during the nationwide lockdown.


A welfare programme was setup, in order to assist migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who were most desperate during the nationwide lockdown. Both documented and undocumented clients received direct financial support. The main focus was to assist clients with vulnerabilities (disabled, chronically ill, old aged, and single parents). The types of assistance that were given were food, rent, health, and other. Alongside this, the food drive that was set up managed to distribute 1,500 food parcels to members of the refugee and migrant community that were most in need. 

Advocacy assistance was also provided – clarity was given on the expiring date of documents for asylum seekers and ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees were included in the government response to the pandemic (6). This included access to social relief or distress grants, owing to how badly all in South Africa had been impacted by the National State of Disaster (6). 

Activities to support women (Women’s Platform) and against Gender-Based Violence were also implemented.

Lawrence House –

Accompaniment of vulnerable minors (documentation, mental health, personal development, sense of belonging). 

Healing from the trauma of separation from their families through art and theatre.

Family reunification – promoted family reunification, where possible and appropriate and worked towards the reintegration of children into the community. The ultimate aim of the institution is to ensure safe family reunification. The speaker from Indiana University found this very interesting, as he drew a parallel between this and the situation at the borders of the United States and Mexico.


The Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa researched and monitored the impact of COVID-19 on migration – securitization of borders, impact of the closure of borders on smuggling/human trafficking and remittances, the protection of human rights, the impact on the informal economy, and the barriers to access of basic services. 

Training courses were also held for pastoral care agents and volunteers of migration that work in the field. The goal of this training course was to connect the teachings of the Catholic Church related to human mobility with the issue of migration in South Africa. 

Q. Perspectives and ongoing matters?

A. Urgent topics –

Racism, xenophobia, and Afrophobia at multiple levels.

The portrayal of migrants and refugees (media, government, public opinion) has been and continues to be negative. There is a need to change this biased trend, in order to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are treated with fairness and dignity. Xenophobia in South Africa has been fuelled by this negative perception. How to change this narrative is an important issue that needs to be tackled.

The enhancement of the network of NPOs, especially faith-based organizations.

In every project and activity that is planned, there needs to be a turn from a charitable perspective to a model where migrants and refugees are active subjects, are recognised in their dignity and value, and are made able to develop their skills and potential in order to give a contribution to society and to the Church.

The Session was well attended and received, and it is anticipated that the CIII conference sessions will be made available on the CMS website in due course. SIHMA and in particular Fr Filippo and James Chapman who attended the CIII Confence, really enjoyed and learnt a lot from the conference. 


James Chapman               and              Christine Lalor


SIHMA                                                   SIHMA 

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