08/28/2015 12:49 EDT | Updated 08/28/2016 05:59 EDT

Migrants Risking Their Lives Need Your Help, Not Just Your Sympathy

Thousands are dying at sea, in detention and on the way to what they hope are better lives. They deserve more than our empathy, understanding and compassion. They also deserve -- and need -- a helping hand.

Every year, thousands of people leave their homes in Central America and journey north in search of a better life. By the time they reach Mexico, many will have endured abuse, robbery, assault, or rape -- if they even get there at all. Murder rates along the migration routes are notoriously high.

The criminal gang activity that makes these journeys so perilous is one of the reasons many are willing to make them in the first place. "I fled my country because of the threats of the gangs," 62-year-old Miguel Ángel Reyes of El Salvador told Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Mexico. "I didn't leave because of poverty, but because of security."

Miguel was speaking with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in Mexico who treat migrants in need of medical care. With authorities in the United States and Mexico becoming increasingly heavy-handed in their attempts to discourage people from illegally entering the U.S., migrants hoping to escape lives of poverty and violence in Central America have been forced to travel via increasingly dangerous underground routes controlled by gangs. By the time many of them arrive in Mexico, they are suffering from injury, illness, hunger, or weakness, but are often too afraid to seek medical help.

Photo: Canadian physician Dr. Simon Bryant, of Doctors Without Borders, tends to a patient during a rescue of more than 450 people from a wooden migrant boat in distress on the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Gabriele François Casini / MSF

Dangerous undertakings

The route between Central and North America is not the only place where people run the risk of torture, illness, or even death simply because they seek to build better lives for themselves. More than 1,800 people have drowned while trying to cross from North Africa to Europe on the Mediterranean Sea this year alone. Elsewhere, authorities in Malaysia have uncovered mass graves of migrant labourers killed by human traffickers. The search for new beginnings can be a dangerous and deadly undertaking in many parts of the world.

Migration has been a fundamental part of human existence throughout history, for as long as people have been moving to new places in order to flee persecution and pursue better lives. Today, many of the people who undertake these harrowing journeys are fleeing miserable situations. Some are economic migrants seeking real futures for their children, while others are refugees trying desperately to escape violence and misery.

Their plight is a humanitarian crisis that has no place in our globalized and interconnected world. Doctors Without Borders works in many countries where migrants start their journeys. We operate in refugee and displacement camps where people are forced to shelter due to war, conflict and violence, and we see first-hand the squalor and despair of life in such places -- the conditions that drive so many people to seek some kind of hope and new beginning elsewhere.

Photo: Moussa, 15, from Ivory Coast, cries on the deck of the Doctors Without Borders search-and-rescue ship Bourbon Argos after being rescued along with 103 other people in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, en route to Sicily, from an inflatable boat. Photo credit: Christophe Stramba/MSF

An issue than cannot be ignored

In many arrival countries, migration is a divisive issue. Public debate focuses on economic fears and deterrence. Doctors Without Borders does not have all the answers, but we are part of a global system that we can see is failing large numbers of people seeking to live free from violence, poverty and misery. That is why we treat patients along the migrant routes in Mexico, and why Doctors Without Borders launched our first maritime medical operations on the Mediterranean in the spring.

This is not a new topic for Doctors Without Borders. I first wrote about the perils of the Central American migration routes two years ago, following a trip to Mexico during my first year as executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada. What was an underreported story then is at last gaining more attention, but change must still come. Our approach to human migration is in need of a rethink.

Thousands are dying at sea, in detention and on the way to what they hope are better lives. They deserve more than our empathy, understanding and compassion. They also deserve -- and need -- a helping hand along the way, and a far more humane welcome than our world has so far been able to muster.

Stephen Cornish is executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada.


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