(Vatican Radio) Forcefully reiterating his call for the protection of vulnerable child migrants, Pope Francis has dedicated his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees to children.
“Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless” is the title of the message for this World Day, celebrated on January 15th, in which Francis asks everyone to take care of the young “who in a threefold way are defenseless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves”.
More and more children are crossing borders on their own. A recent United Nations report revealed that over 100,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in 78 countries in 2015– that’s triple the number of 2014.
The report also pointed out that child migrants travelling alone are among those at the highest risk of exploitation and abuse, including by smugglers and traffickers. This too is a reality Pope Francis reflected on in depth as he condemned the abuse of children whom – he said - are “prey to unscrupulous exploiters who often transform them into the object of physical, moral and sexual violence”.
The International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, Father Tom Smolich SJ, spoke to Linda Bordoni about the Pope’s message, about the work carried forward by JRS across the globe, about his concern for increasing numbers of child migrants and the xenophobic political trends or our time that result in more walls and less welcome.
Click below to hear our conversation with Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ
Father Tom Smolich speaks of his appreciation for Pope Francis’ focus on the needs and reality of child migrants whom, he too says “are the most vulnerable”.
“Certainly the statistics would tell us that approximately half of those who are refugees and forced migrants are under the age of 18, so we are talking about a large number of young men and women; a lot of them are unaccompanied migrants, especially children leaving places like Eritrea where their folks tell them to go and don’t ask where they are so they can’t be tracked down. Something we are increasingly seeing in Central America now, where the children head north and the parents head south, just out of fear of what can be done in terms of the violence there” he says.
Smolich also says the point Pope Francis makes at the end of his message when he calls for “protection, integration and long-term solutions” is right in line with JRS’s decades-long experience in caring and advocating for refugees.
He points out that protection and integration go hand in hand and speaks of how JRS’s focus on education is rooted in the belief that education both “protects and enables young people to participate in the societies they are currently living in, and will be part of, in the future”.
Smolich expresses his concern for current political trends both in Europe and in the US which are resulting in the closing of borders and a growing culture of “non-welcome”.
“How could one not be concerned? The needs of people on the move are huge right now. Many of the countries who are raising walls are the one’s also producing the guns, the ammunition and the weapons of destruction that are at the root of so much going on” he says.
He also reveals he is looking at the conversation going on in his own country – the US – about whether to build a wall, whether to exclude Muslims, whether to end the status of some 750,000 young immigrants who were brought over as children and who have been given rights under a Presidential Order that the incoming President could change.
“There’s a real vulnerability here, and again: the children are always the most vulnerable” he says.
What Pope Francis is saying – Smolich points out - is “remember this through the perspective of the eyes of a child; remember what this does to children”.
The JRS International Director also reflects on the Pope’s call to deal with the issue of trafficking and the vulnerability of children in this regard. He says unfortunately his staff often comes across situations of young boys and girls who have been trafficked, and highlight how being on the move makes them especially vulnerable.
He talks about JRS’s “Mercy in Motion” campaign which was launched in response to Pope Francis’ invitation to put ‘mercy into action’ during the just-ended Jubilee Year.
“We felt, as JRS, our goal was to increase our education, especially for young people (…) Our goal remains to increase by 2020 the number of young people we serve by 100,000” he says.
Smolich says the organization continues to work on the fulfillment of this goal and reveals that JRS has become responsible for all refugee education in Eastern Chad where the focus is mainly on girls because “a girl who is in school at 14 is protected, she’s learning, she doesn’t get married early, she doesn’t become a victim of survival sex, she learns skills that will help her in the years to come.”
He elaborates on the continuing “Global Education Initiative” for which JRS is still raising money and says one of the current hotspots that have been identified is Northern Uganda where young South Sudanese refugees are pouring over the border in need of protection and skills for their future.
Smolich also speaks of JRS’s commitment wherever there is need and talks about its presence in Syria where it has programmes in Aleppo, in Homs and in Damascus.
He says that in Aleppo JRS does primarily food assistance and general health care, while in Homs and in Damascus the focus is mainly on child protection and education.
“When I visited Homs (…) I went to see the education programme. I was moved to see about a dozen young people – 9, 10 maybe 12-years-old – being taught by someone I then discovered was a Syrian chess champion who was teaching them chess. I was very moved by that because one doesn’t teach chess unless you see a long-term future; if it’s only for the short-term, you’re teaching checkers. If you are teaching chess and you are learning chess, you’re saying: ‘there is a future for these people’. And that is the image that stays with me. Children deserve to be able to learn chess, children deserve to be able to envision a future” he says.
Smolich points that it is the responsibility of all of us who are responding to Pope Francis’ message to make sure that there is a genuine future for those most in need of our protection.