ROME — Pope Francis called on the international community Thursday to recognize the plight of the world's "invisible and voiceless" child migrants, who too often fall victim to child labor, human trafficking and underage prostitution rings on their perilous journeys from home.
In an impassioned statement issued ahead of next year's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, scheduled to take place on January 15, Francis said migration was "growing into a tragic situation of global proportion" — one that subjects children, in particular, to "exploitation carried out by unscrupulous people."
"I feel compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone," he said. "In doing so I ask everyone to take care of the young, who in a threefold way are defenceless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves. I ask everyone to help those who, for various reasons, are forced to live far from their homeland and are separated from their families."
According to the International Organization for Migration, an average of one in five migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015 was underage.
"Children are among the most at risk of refugees and migrants. For some children, the difficulties begin with perilous border crossings and rough seas," the IOM wrote in a report. "All are at risk of being exposed to sickness, injury, violence, exploitation and trafficking — violations of their rights and threats to their lives and well-being — while some tragically never arrive at their destination."
Pope Francis has drawn attention to migration since his 2013 election, and often publicly asks world leaders to do more to welcome refugees fleeing war and poverty.
Last April, he took 12 migrants back to Rome from Lesbos, one of the Greek islands where migrants land after attempting dangerous sea crossings from Turkey in often overcrowded dinghies.
"Children are the first among those to pay the heavy toll of emigration," Francis said Thursday, "almost always caused by violence, poverty, environmental conditions, as well as the negative aspects of globalization."
In the message, the pope asked the international community to adopt "every possible measure to guarantee the protection and safety of child migrants," to regularize their status, integrate them, and "eliminate the conflicts and violence that force people to flee."