Need Shelter? You’ll need a document

Scalabrini’s Welfare programme: fighting for human rights for all

Maxie studies social work and is completing an internship with the Welfare Programme at Scalabrini. Here she reflects on her work at the centre.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and possess equal dignity and rights. Though this might lead us to imagine that human rights are universal and unconditional, reality can be very different.

We see this unjust reality in our daily work at the Welfare Programme, where we meet refugees who are often unable to exercise their human rights. Since the South African system only grants rights to clients who have the correct legal documents and makes it difficult to obtain or renew those documents, asylum seekers and migrants face many barriers in receiving their rights.

This becomes especially visible when Scalabrini tries to find shelter for homeless and undocumented clients. Shelters often require a document before they offer a place, even though remaining documented in South Africa is not always easy and is sometimes beyond migrants’ means. Previously documented clients sometimes live on the streets because their permits have expired. For some to extend their asylum seeker permits and remain documented, they must travel to Durban, Pretoria or Musina – but with no way to legally work and no money to travel there, they find themselves in a catch 22.

For example, one young man from DRC walked up and down Cape Town from shelter to shelter and was repeatedly turned away because his permit had expired in the past week due to administrative barriers beyond his control. He says he cannot return to DRC and that he feels trapped here, as staying and leaving both seem impossible.

Such stories illustrate the need for a system that systematically respects the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. The declaration of human rights is certainly one of the most important concepts in the history of humankind, but it loses its power when its principles are not observed in reality. Denying services to individuals because they are undocumented undermines the very rights that, in theory, each human holds. This is why the welfare program does everything it can to help asylum seekers and migrants, regardless of their documentation status.

Read more about the services of the Welfare Programme here