Pope Appeals for Rights of Migrant and Refugee Children
By Sarah Delaney
November 30, 2009
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI urged governments and international organizations to give special attention to the rights of child immigrants, who often are victims of exploitation and abandonment.
Minors forced to immigrate for reasons of poverty, violence or hunger are the most vulnerable, he said.
The pope made the comments in his annual message for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees, which will be celebrated Jan. 17 in most countries. The papal text was released at the Vatican Nov. 27.
The pope said host countries must create policies that protect child immigrants and help them integrate into society. These children should enjoy basic rights such as going to school and being able to work legally, he added.
"I warmly hope that proper attention will be given to minor migrants who need a social environment that permits and fosters their physical, cultural, spiritual and moral development," he said.
Despite increased awareness of the need to help child immigrants, the pope said, "many are left to fend for themselves and, in various ways, face the risk of exploitation."
Pope Benedict referred to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes children's "fundamental rights as equal to the rights of adults." But "unfortunately this does not always happen in practice," he said.
The pope's message was presented at a Vatican press conference by Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers; Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the council; and Msgr. Novatus Rugambwa, undersecretary of the council.
Archbishop Veglio said children come to be migrants in different ways: the lucky ones are accompanied by their parents or a guardian. Others are sent alone, either to save them from a desperate situation in their home countries or to work to send money back to their families.
"This becomes a heavy psychological burden for a child who doesn't want to disappoint them," he said. The child is then "willing to suffer injustice, violence and mistreatment to obtain a worker's permit."
Archbishop Veglio pointed out that international convention prohibits the repatriation of minors, "but we know that that right, like many others, is not respected."
Archbishop Marchetto said internationally established rights for migrant minors to have access to school, health care, a home and food are often not respected in the host countries. Many children live isolated lives, staying in refugee camps or immigration centers. Often they have no money, he said.
In many countries "there is a great divide between the stated objectives and real daily practice," he said, and many people still react to immigrants in their countries with prejudice.
"This behavior of discrimination, xenophobia and even racism must be addressed with policies aimed at protecting and reinforcing the rights of refugees," he said.
Msgr. Rugambwa emphasized the need for real educational opportunities for the children of immigrants, or minors who migrate alone, and the obligation to reject policies that segregate these children or don't encourage realistic integration into the school system.
Meanwhile, the Vatican's representative to United Nations agencies based in Geneva said the increase in illegal global migration shows that so far efforts to manage immigration have not worked.
Speaking Nov. 25 to the International Organization for Migration, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said data from the United Nations and individual governments show that 15 to 20 percent of all immigration is illegal, amounting to 30 million to 40 million people.
Countries on every continent are trying to deal with illegal immigration. He called it "a reality that will remain with us as long as insecurity due to environmental degradation, violations of human rights, wars and lack of opportunity persist."
Illegal and legal immigration are closely linked by the same root causes, he said. The difference is that some people are diverted to irregular channels because no legal channels are effectively available.
In fact, Archbishop Tomasi said, the phenomenon is growing, "notwithstanding increased control of borders and of work places."
But immigrants themselves deserve compassion and consideration even if they have entered a country clandestinely, he said. "Bound up in all these considerations, the dignity and inalienable human rights of irregular migrants call for a new management strategy."
He said governments have the right to regulate immigration, but should work for solutions that are positive for everyone.
If international organizations and governments are able to construct a framework that opens more possibilities for legal immigration and guarantees basic human rights, he said, "everyone will gain: migrants, national economies and peaceful coexistence."
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