Commemorating World Refugee Day: Unaccompanied Minors

June 17, 2014

The United Nations General Assembly declared that from 2001 on, the international community would recognize World Refugee Day on June 20th. Thirteen years later, we still see how the effects of conflict, human trafficking, persecution, and climate change give people in affected regions no choice but to leave everything they know in hopes of finding a better life.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) number for “refugees of concern” stood at a ghastly 10.4 million people at the end of 2013. Oftentimes, those who are displaced live in refugee camps with thousands of other families. The numbers of those people living on the outskirts or on the streets, however, are countless.

Columban Missionaries know the stories of refugees and the circumstances that push them from their homes all too well.  On the U.S.-Mexico Border, many of the migrants that pass through the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas have faced extreme hardships, causing them to risk their lives and their freedom to come from South and Central America to the United States. The majority of the countries from which migrants come are facing severe conflict and war, making it even more dangerous to stay at home.

Recently, there have been images circulating that expose the massive influx of unaccompanied minors who are currently being kept in detention centers along the border. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is  overwhelmed by the estimated 47,000 minors that have crossed the border in the past eight months. They have reached out to various religious communities, including our own Columban Mission Center in El Paso, to take in some of the children who are in detention. According to Columbans on the border, “Visitors recently helped us feed 86 of these immigrants and house 17 in the Columban Mission Center.”

Many are asking: Why are these people, and especially children, coming now?

Although there are many push factors, the highest volume of children coming across the border unaccompanied are doing so due to the extreme violence and political persecution they face in their home countries. Now that they have come to the United States, they live in shelters, detention facilities, religious houses or places of worship, and even army bases. Unable to stay in their home countries for fear of being swept up in conflict, they live in our country as refugees.

In March, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a report entitled Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection. In the report, they quote a 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

Pope Francis has been extremely outspoken regarding the plight of refugees. On his first pastoral visit in Lampadusa, he pointed out the international community’s tendency to turn a blind eye to those who flee persecution and war, rather than try to decipher it:

“Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility; we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

As Catholics, we are called to welcome the stranger, to look at someone who is suffering and do our best to help. Today, let us reflect on the words of Pope Francis, as well as the suffering of migrant children and their families who face conflict in their home countries.