Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See
Seventy-second Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Third Committee
Agenda Item 68: Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children
New York, 11 October 2017
The phenomenon of migration has reached unprecedented proportions in the last few years. Scattered around the world, an estimated 250 million persons cross international borders, around 65 million of whom qualify as refugees. They have fled from their countries desperate to find safe haven from persecutions and violent conflicts. They have abandoned once fertile lands which are turning into deserts, or they simply want a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, most especially for their children.
It should not therefore come as much of a surprise when the phenomenon of people on the move is accompanied by an even greater and faster growth in the proportion of children among migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons. An estimated 535 million children live in countries suffering from conflicts, ethnic or religious persecutions, violence, natural disasters and extreme poverty. Millions of desperate children are fleeing their home countries without the protection of their families. Parents are constrained to see their children leave without them, hoping that after a perilous journey they will find welcome and protection somewhere.
The global number of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children has reached a record high, increasing nearly five-fold in the last five years, from 66,000 in 2010 and 2011 to at least 300,000 in 2015 and 2016.
Pope Francis underlined how vulnerable these unaccompanied children are by saying that they are defenceless in a threefold way: first, because they are children; second, because they are foreigners; and third, because they have no means to protect themselves. Among migrants, children constitute the most defenceless group. Unaccompanied, most of them are deprived of proper documentation. Without legitimate adult guardians, they have no one to speak for them. 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 has reminded us that the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a universal legal basis for the actions that must be undertaken to keep child migrants from ending up abandoned on the street and prey to unscrupulous exploiters. The Convention establishes legal obligations of States Parties that cannot be arbitrarily and unilaterally curtailed or disregarded. They include measures to protect the best interests of the child, like proper identification and registration, and the designation of a guardian or custodian for proper legal representation, as well as the right to education and the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health-care.
The Holy See and the Catholic Church throughout the world always strive to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate those who flee from adverse conditions, in particular children who are most vulnerable. Specific initiatives to welcome, protect and integrate child migrants include family tracing and reunification, education and programs aimed at giving long-term solutions for child migrants. Advocacy in their favour and public awareness campaigns about their plight are being pursued at various levels, especially in schools and parishes. Multipronged programs are being realized on the ground, aimed not only at assisting migrant children, but also at fighting the root causes of their forced or involuntary displacement.
Among the most vicious forms of violence against children is that which occurs in armed conflicts. Many United Nations reports, in particular those of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, draw attention to the severe impact on children of our collective failure to prevent and end conflicts. They point out that violations against the rights of children in armed conflict have increased in intensity and scale. Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such violent brutality: children used as soldiers, suicide bombers, sex slaves, and disposable intelligence-gatherers in the most dangerous military operations. The deliberate destruction of their schools and hospitals in total disregard of international humanitarian law has become a strategy of war.
The Holy See and the Catholic Church have been working with the United Nations and other stakeholders in opposing not only the use of children as combatants, but also the many other forms of violence against children caught in armed conflict, trying to help alleviate their sufferings and accompany them on the road to full reintegration with their families and society.
Children are first and foremost human beings with fundamental human rights. They cannot be left voiceless and invisible. Their best interests must be recognised and respected. Their protection and integration must therefore be a primordial concern for all.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
1. UNICEF Report, 17 May 2017.
2. Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless, 15 January 2017.