Up until recently migration was not such a loaded word. It represented movement, opportunity, adventure. There was nothing of the heated debates and political divides that dominate the media buzz today, relaying fear, swinging elections and clouding the global discourse on people on the move.
With 65 million children on the move around the world, we have to rise above all this and put the children concerned at the centre of the discussion. A fuller understanding of the reasons why families migrate will help us better appreciate the universal aspirations that are driving people to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
West and Central African countries outnumber others in the list of arrivals of young migrants in Italy. Many of them make the dangerous journey because they saw no future for themselves at home and decided to risk their lives for education, for work, for opportunity. These young people describe a sense of despair, struggling to climb out of poverty without adequate schooling in communities that are held back by disease and not enough jobs.
With only a vague sense of the dangers of the 'backway', the desert route to Libya, they set out to escape a life of poverty and struggle. Children as young as 10 take buses across the Sahel, paying bribes for passage at checkpoints until their money is gone. They sometimes end up in the hands of kidnappers who torture and beat them until their desperate parents pay a ransom or until they are buried in a shallow grave in the sands of Libya. The world community has issued stern condemnations but has done little to protect children who have been dragged into the depths of this new form of hell.
The status quo is unconscionable. To see some of the best and the brightest of Africa's youth flee poverty to face violence, degradation and death is a tragic reality that we cannot accept as normal. While some young migrants survive the journey, no one should have to risk so much in search of opportunity.
Yet many would say that the issues are too hard to tackle, the costs too high and the situation too complex. Addressing the issue of migration in West and Central Africa will require courage and commitment if we are to deal with the root causes of migration: poverty, lack of education and absence of hope.
From Nouakchott to N'Djamena, UNICEF is already laying the foundation for a better future. Strengthening systems for children's protection and education, keeping children healthy and ensuring they have the tools to be lifelong learners and the innovators and leaders of tomorrow. This is the core 'business' of UNICEF.
To address the issue of migration will require investments in social services in the countries where people on the move are coming from, so families feel safe and supported, and their children can thrive in their home environment. Until people can find opportunity in their own country, the waves of migration will likely continue.
As daunting as the issue may seem, there are many solutions. Engagement from governments on an agenda for action can help expand the systems of support and protection for children across the region. Until we can turn the rhetoric of compassion into practical long-term solutions that are relevant for communities, then children and adolescents will continue to be at risk.
Tens of thousands of children would be better protected if governments of the region strictly enforced legislation punishing child traffickers. This can be done by scaling up support to investigate, arrest and adjudicate cases in a transparent and public manner, sending a strong message that traffickers are not above the law.
Many of the problems associated with migration come from the walls that we build in our own minds and are rooted in misconceptions. UNICEF and partners are calling on civil society and the public at large to be part of a movement that builds awareness about positive inclusion and the benefits of welcoming migrants in their community. We must all work to eliminate xenophobia and discrimination by significantly expanding national and grassroots campaigns that promote the integration of migrant children and foster a culture of acceptance and diversity.
These solutions will not be easy nor will they be cheap. To expand services for young people across multiple countries and design programmes to reach the most vulnerable is incredibly challenging, and it will demand the very best efforts from governments and partners. Yet, the cost of inaction could be catastrophic for children. With migration set to rise as we face the converging challenges of unrestrained population growth, climate change and conflict, we must deal with the root causes of migration and urgently expand opportunities for children in their country of origin, and protection for children on the move.