Heartrending accounts of violence against refugee and migrant children set the tone for a unique gathering this month in Rome, Italy, which brought together representatives of more than 80 international faith groups and non-governmental organizations.
The three-day summit, called “Faith Action for Children on the Move,” began October 16, 2018, and drew some 200 attendees. Its goal was to forge new partnerships to help protect the estimated 28 million vulnerable young people and children worldwide who are currently displaced from their homes by conflict, poverty, natural disasters, or migration.
“It was a truly moving experience to be part of this gathering,” said Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and one of the planners of the event. “So many different organizations and religious traditions came together for one simple reason: because we are moved to the core of our being by the suffering and inhumane treatment of children and, in particular, of children on the move.”
The global surge in the numbers of refugees and migrants in recent years has meant a corresponding increase in the exploitation of children, who often find themselves prey to trafficking, forced labor, pornography, forced marriages, and other physical abuses.
The sheer numbers of children on the move has caught the attention of global entities. According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund, one in every 80 children worldwide is displaced from their home. From 2005 to 2015, the number of child refugees more than doubled from 4 million to 9 million, with an estimated 300,000 children crossing borders during 2015 and 2016 as unaccompanied minors.
More sobering still is the violence experienced by many of these children and young people. Almost 30 percent of all detected trafficking victims worldwide are children. It’s been estimated that on one well-known trans-Mediterranean migrant route — from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe — a teenage boy has a more than 70 percent chance of experiencing physical abuse of some kind.
The Rome event was spearheaded by World Vision International and supported by a number of other organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist world church and Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) International. Diop was a member of the organizing committee, and he gave a presentation during the first plenary session, outlining why faith groups should coordinate their efforts in addressing the plight of children on the move.
Noting the vast range of different religions represented, Diop said, “It is our recognition of our common humanity that brings us together.” While acknowledging clear and unchangeable theological differences, he traced the shared values of compassion and justice through Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist teachings. Diop told the group that this moral consensus allows people of every faith tradition to “stand together to save lives, to protect lives, and to secure the ability of children to develop in healthy environments, free from violence, abuse, and murder.”
In an interview after the event, Diop said it had provided an opportunity to affirm key Adventist values in a multi-faith setting. “Adventists’ wholistic view of life springs from our firm belief in the biblical account of creation, with its clear depiction of humanity created in God’s own image,” said Diop. “And if every human bears the imprint of the Creator, then we simply cannot stand on the sidelines when human beings — especially defenseless children — are exploited and abused.”
“From the words of the ancient prophet Micah to ‘do justice and love kindness’ to the searing words of Jesus in Matthew 25, who said, ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger,’ it’s clear that Adventist Christians are called to identify with the disenfranchised, and to see oppression of the vulnerable as an insult to God Himself,” Diop said.
Before the event, Diop was asked by the organizing committee to draft a document providing a theological foundation for the engagement of faith groups with ending violence against children on the move. Each attendee was given a copy of this document.
Throughout the three days of presentations and panels, participants explored ways to better focus and coordinate their efforts in providing support and protection for refugee and migrant children.
“This is just the beginning of a conversation,” said Diop, “and it’s one we hope will bring more awareness to the tragic exploitation of children on the move, as well as encouraging productive partnerships between faith groups in tackling this global epidemic.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has long worked for the welfare of children through its worldwide network of schools and hospitals, and through the global work of ADRA. The Children’s Ministries department, headed by Linda Mei Lin Koh at the world church level, produces resources for children and works to raise awareness of the needs of children around the world.