http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/images/size340/Unaccompanied_Child_July_2014_2_Credit_Katy_Senour_CNA_CNA_7_14_14.jpgWashington D.C., Nov 29, 2014 / 04:22 pm (CNA).- In 1999, two teenagers froze to death in the hold of a Sabena Airlines Airbus A330 travelling from Guinea to Brussels.
Yaguine Koïta and Fodé Tounkara were found three days after their death among their possessions, including plastic bags with birth certificates, school report cards, family photographs and a letter, written in imperfect French.
The letter addressed the leaders of Europe, asking them to help children in Africa receive a better education and to provide relief from hunger and war.
“Therefore, if you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and risked our lives, this is because we suffer too much in Africa and that we need you to fight against poverty and to put an end to the war in Africa,” it reads. “Nevertheless, we want to learn, and we ask you to help us in Africa learn to be like you.”
Fifteen years after their death, the world has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of unaccompanied child migrants, particularly along the border between Mexico and the United States, and on the Mediterranean Sea, known as the “gateway to Europe” for those migrating from Africa.
Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic non-profit helping the poor throughout the world, hosted a panel with Vatican Radio Nov. 18 to discuss the rights of child migrants, and the responsibilities of countries taking them in as part of the 25th anniversary of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC defines a child as anyone under 18 years of age and outlines certain rights that children – including migrants - should enjoy, including: the right to life, health care, education, to practice their own religion, and the right to play.
Panelist Msgr. Bob Vitillo, who serves as Caritas’ representative to the United Nations, said ensuring the rights of child migrants is important because they are often the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
“Many of them are excluded from school, many of them don’t benefit from the health plans and the programs in the country, many of them are street children and therefore are much more vulnerable to being sexually abused or abusive work situations,” he said, “so these are children who especially need to have their rights assured.”
The UNCRC has been ratified almost universally, except for in the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan. Those opposed to U.S. ratification cite concerns about U.N. intervention in domestic politics, as well as concerns regarding the rights of parents.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States alone has seen the number of unaccompanied child migrants almost triple in a few short years. In the fiscal year of 2011, border patrolmen apprehended 16,067 unaccompanied children. In just the first eight months of 2014, they arrested 47, 017.
Panelist Sister Norma Pimentel said she knows the “horrible and heartbreaking” plight of child migrants on the border all too well. As the Executive Director with Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, she has often pleaded with border patrolmen to let her into the detention centers where families and children are kept.