On this “World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” we are called by the Holy Father to draw attention to child migrants, who “in a threefold way are defenceless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves.”
Inspired by the journey of the Holy Family, which fled the violence of King Herod as many refugees flee violence today, the vision of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is “creating a world where immigrants, refugees, migrants, and people on the move are treated with dignity, respect, welcome, and belonging.” MRS serves as a leader in the protection of migrant and refugee children providing them foster care and family reunification services through culturally-appropriate programs nationwide since 1980.
Providing refuge and hope to migrant and refugee children fleeing for their lives is crucial at this time where we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes– nearly 34,000 people every day.
As a member of an inter-faith, interagency delegation to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan in April of 2016 I visited informal settlements of Syrian refugees. One of the dwellings I visited in Lebanon was an abandoned building occupied by 180 Syrian refugee families, totaling 1,000 people. Approximately half were children. The building bordered a busy road, next to which children played, barefoot, on a concrete courtyard. The floor of one of the common rooms, a thruway to other rooms, was covered with about one inch of water, including raw sewage.
When we asked a group of about 25 children, most under 13 years old, who attended school, two raised their hands. The rest had to work to support their families. For many migrant and refugee families, child labor is necessary for economic survival, particularly in countries where adult refugees are not allowed to work legally, such is the case in Lebanon, where refugees are at risk of detention and deportation to Syria if they are caught working. Children can more easily evade labor and migration enforcement than adults. The younger and more vulnerable a child is, the more earning potential they have as beggars, and the more at risk they are to exploitation and human trafficking.
Identifying children in need of protection is a challenge in many regions of the world where refugees reside. The result is that children who are in need of protection are not proactively identified, resulting in harm, sexual assault or rape, recruitment into criminal organizations, and in the worst cases, death. Children who are unable to access protection may take upon themselves pursuit of protective measures and migrate to safety themselves in what is often a perilous journey with uncertain consequences and results.
For children who are able to access protection, that is just the beginning. The path to a durable solution is a narrow, winding road. Durable solutions for unaccompanied children include integration into countries of first asylum, repatriation to their country of origin, or resettlement. Integration and repatriation are, in most cases, not realistic options, and although unaccompanied refugee minors make up about 3-4 percent of the world’s refugees only less than half of one percent are resettled.
For a small number of children, MRS makes that hope a reality, providing durable solutions for unaccompanied children through refugee resettlement, reunification with families, and placements in foster care programs. In 2016, MRS resettled 10,000 refugee children who arrived with family members, reunified with families 2,000 migrant children who arrived to the United States alone, and for another 500 unaccompanied children secured safe housing in a variety of settings, from small-scale shelters or group homes to foster care families. Embodying the MRS vision, a MRS foster parent to six unaccompanied children (from Nepal, Liberia, Honduras, the Congo, and Eritrea) said, “We didn’t just welcome them into our house, we welcomed (them) into our family.”
I’m concluding with a plea from the Holy Father, “The Church too needs you and supports you in the generous service you offer. Do not tire of courageously living the Gospel, which calls you to recognize and welcome the Lord Jesus among the smallest and most vulnerable.”
Kristyn Peck is Associate Director of Children’s Services, Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops