When it comes to migration, children are the first to suffer, Pope says

Pope Francis with a group of disabled children led by Unitalsi Lazio in Santa Martha on May 29 2015 Credit LOsservatore Romano CNA Pope Francis with a group of disabled children, led by Unitalsi Lazio in Santa Martha on May 29, 2015.

As images of children crushed by bombs or washed up at sea are becoming an increasingly daily sight, Pope Francis' decision to focus his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on child migrants rings in as particularly timely and appropriate.

"I feel compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone," Francis said in his message.

Young migrants, he noted, are particularly vulnerable and defenseless primarily because "they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves."

He pointed to Jesus' insistence in the Gospels that whoever receives a child "in my name receives me," as well as his warning that for those who cause a child to sin, "it is better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea."

"How can we ignore this severe warning when we see the exploitation carried out by unscrupulous people?" he asked.

"Such exploitation harms young girls and boys who are led into prostitution or into the mire of pornography; who are enslaved as child laborers or soldiers; who are caught up in drug trafficking and other forms of criminality; who are forced to flee from conflict and persecution, risking isolation and abandonment," he noted.

"I ask everyone to help those who, for various reasons, are forced to live far from their homeland and are separated from their families."

Titled "Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless," Pope Francis' message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees was presented to journalists during an Oct. 13 news conference in Rome. The day will be celebrated in the Church Jan. 15, 2017.

In his message, the Pope noted that children are the first to pay the price of emigration, often caused by violence, poverty, environmental problems, as well as the negative impact of globalization.

An "unrestrained competition for a quick and easy profit" brings with it "scourges" such as child trafficking, the exploitation and abuse of minors, and the deprivation of rights "intrinsic to childhood," such as the right to a secure family environment guided by "a mother and a father," the right to education and that of recreation.

However, frequently child migrants are left "invisible and voiceless" because the precocity of their situation "deprives them of documentation, hiding them from the world's eyes," and the absence of an adult to accompany them "prevents their voices from being raised and heard."

"In this way, migrant children easily end up at the lowest levels of human degradation, where illegality and violence destroy the future of too many innocents, while the network of child abuse is difficult to break up."

Pope Francis called the phenomena of migration a "sign of the times." To resolve the problem, one recognize that it is connected to salvation history, he said, and pointed to several versus in the Bible encouraging the welcome strangers and foreigners.

"Each person is precious," he said, stressing that "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 cautioned that the line between migration and trafficking "can at times be very subtle," and noted that the most prominent cause of the abuse and exploitation of children "is demand."

"If more rigorous and effective action is not taken against those who profit from such abuse, we will not be able to stop the multiple forms of slavery where children are the victims," he said.

Francis encouraged the international community to work together in sharing information to end such phenomena, and focused on the need to integrate children and youth migrants into their new communities.

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Often times instead of focusing on welcome and integration, programs attempt "to curb the entrance of migrants, which in turn fosters illegal networks; or else immigrants are repatriated to their country of origin without any concern for their best interests."

The condition of child migrants "is worsened when their status is not regularized or when they are recruited by criminal organizations," he said, noting that in such cases "they are usually sent to detention centers."

While there, "it is not unusual for them to be arrested, and because they have no money to pay the fine or for the return journey, they can be incarcerated for long periods, exposed to various kinds of abuse and violence."

Francis stressed that in these cases, it is the right of each state to control migratory movement," but that protecting the "common good of the nation" must be seen "in conjunction with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants," rather than contrary to it.

Long-term solutions which target the problems at their source are needed, he said, and pointed to phenomena such as war, violence corruption, poverty and human rights violations in migrants' home countries as examples.

In these cases, "children are the first to suffer, at times suffering torture and other physical violence, in addition to moral and psychological aggression, which almost always leave indelible scars."

The Pope closed his message by thanking the organizations and institutions who work with migrants, particularly children, and urged the international community to step up their efforts in ending the conflicts and violence that force people to flee their homeland.

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Entrusting all child migrants, their families and communities to the intercession of the Holy Family, Pope Francis prayed that they would "watch over and accompany each one on their journey."