Representatives of the Holy See say the Catholic Church plans to actively lobby local churches and parishes around the world to do more to protect and assist thousands of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children at risk of exploitation and abuse.
At the bidding of Pope Francis, a new section devoted to achieving a more vigorous response to the protection and assistance needs of refugees and migrants was established at the Vatican early this year.
International Catholic Migration Commission Secretary General Monsignor Robert Vitillo says a special focus will be on helping unaccompanied migrant and refugee children on the move.
“They face the great risk of vulnerability to human traffickers, sexual predators and other unscrupulous persons who wish to cause harm to children and adolescents and are finding themselves as the victims of organ trafficking, sexual trafficking, child labor and early marriage," said Vitillo.
Europol estimates more than 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing in Europe after registering with state authorities during the past two years. Vitillo says it is feared they have fallen into the hands of organized trafficking syndicates.
Many churches and Catholic organizations around the world already have projects that provide shelter and other aid to unaccompanied minors. Reverend Father Michael Czerny works in the Migrant and Refugee section at the Vatican and is one of two priests who reports directly to Pope Francis.
He tells VOA it is up to local churches and parishes to set their own policies. For example, he says the decision to open sanctuary to illegal migrants in the United States is up to the diocese or parish.
“I visited the States a month ago and one of the things that I learned, which I have not seen explored elsewhere, is that the notion of sanctuary is not very clear," said Czerny. "Let us say it is clearer spiritually and culturally than it is legally.”
Czerny says he believes the church in the United States will want to have a pretty solid understanding of what sanctuary does or does not mean as more and more parishes become involved in the movement.