Pope’s plea for child migrants: ‘invisible, vulnerable and voiceless’

Pope Francis with refugees on Lesbos, Greece. Credit: Caritas
Pope Francis with refugees on Lesbos, Greece. Credit: Caritas

Pope Francis has highlighted the plight of children on the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which is being marked this Sunday (15 January). In addition to stressing their vulnerability and needs, the Pope is calling on governments, organisations and individuals “to work towards protection, integration and long-term solutions” to the conditions that child migrants face.

In his message for the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis points out that migration today is not a phenomenon limited to some areas of the planet: but rather, it affects all continents and is growing into a tragic situation of global proportions. “Not only does this concern those looking for dignified work or better living conditions,” he says, “but also men and women, the elderly and children, who are forced to leave their homes in the hope of finding safety, peace and security.”

Because of its fragile nature, childhood has unique and inalienable needs, according to the Pope, especially the right to a healthy and secure family environment, adequate education, and the right to recreation: “in a word, they have the right to be children”. He warns of the specific dangers that face child migrants: exploitation and abuse, trafficking and prostitution, forced labour and enslavement as child soldiers.

“I ask everyone to take care of the young, who in a threefold way are defenceless,” he writes in his message. “They are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves. I ask everyone to help those who, for various reasons, are forced to live far from their homeland and are separated from their families … Among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group, because as they face the life ahead of them, they are invisible and voiceless …”

Boys and girls are humanity’s hopeKakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Credit: Angela Wells/JRS

Pope Francis identifies several key points by way of a response to the situation facing child migrants. Firstly, he points out that the phenomenon of migration is closely related to salvation history and therefore the Christian community should welcome the stranger. “Each person is precious,” he says, “persons are more important than things, and the worth of an institution is measured by the way it treats the life and dignity of human beings, particularly when they are vulnerable, as in the case of child migrants.” He then goes on urge the international community to work towards protection, integration and long-term solutions. Reflecting on the use of detention centres and the risk to children whose status is not regularised, he says: “Of fundamental importance is the adoption of adequate national procedures and mutually agreed plans of cooperation between countries of origin and of destination, with the intention of eliminating the causes of the forced emigration of minors.”

Describing children as “humanity’s hope”, the Pope concludes his message by stressing the necessity to deal with the causes which trigger migrations in the countries of origin. “This requires, as a first step, the commitment of the whole international community to eliminate the conflicts and violence that force people to flee,” he says. “Furthermore, far-sighted perspectives are called for, capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all. This development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”

Welcome, protection and integration

Sarah Teather of JRS UK with Pope FrancisIn many of the most troubled areas around the world, the Jesuit Refugee Service focuses on improving access to education for refugee children and young people.  In the UK, where education is provided for all children currently, JRS needs to support refugee families and pregnant women in other ways. “We are seeing rising numbers of pregnant women being made destitute and street homeless as a result of government policy towards asylum seekers, and increasing numbers of refugee families with children living in situations of extreme instability”, explained Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK. “We are concerned that changes in legislation being rolled out this year will create yet more hardship for many of the refugee families we support at JRS UK. We urge all to take heed of the Holy Father’s call to recognise the importance of welcoming, protecting and integrating refugee children.”

This Friday, 13 January, Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ will meet refugees, volunteers and friends of the Astalli Center in Rome at a public event entitled Refugee Youth: hope for a peaceful future.  The meeting, at the Church of the Gesù, will be an opportunity for the Astalli Center, the home of the Italian Jesuit Refugee Service, to celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees with young refugees from different nationalities who have arrived in Italy alone or with their families and to engage in conversation with Fr General. They will be greeted by Fr Camillo Ripamonti SJ, President of the Astalli Center, before they deliver a message of peace in their various languages. Fr General will then recite a Prayer for Refugees, specially written for this occasion.

"At a time when the world's refugees are increasing and with them a growing number of children who are forced to to travel alone or with their parents, Europe is responding with fear and uncertainty that jeopardise the future of our democracies as well as the lives of thousands of migrants," says Fr Ripamonti. "The young refugees, if supported and protected, can be an opportunity to rethink our weary society and increasingly inward-looking."

The full text of Pope Francis’ Message for the 103rd World Day for Migrants and Refugees is available on the Vatican website.