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


Of the 92 people pulled from a small inflatable boat on the Mediterranean sea by a Doctors Without Borders team one day last month, one was an eight-months-pregnant woman named Sandra who was fleeing the violence in Libya. "It is risky for women to travel, but they do what they do because they are not safe where they are," she said. "We take the risk of entering this water to look for a better life."

Sandra is just one of millions of people around the world who have left their home countries in search of a safer, better life. She is among the luckier ones. On the Mediterranean so far this year, more than 1,800 migrants have died. In Central America, thousands of migrants are killed each year, and many more are raped, robbed or assaulted. A vessel filled with starving Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar made headlines recently when it was trapped at sea; on land, Malaysian authorities revealed mass graves where the remains of other migrants were buried.

These tragedies expose the appalling human consequences of our approach to migration. Much of the reaction suggests we are unwilling to accept the idea that someone in search of a better life deserves to die on the way. And yet that sense of moral indignation seems strangely lacking when it comes to the conditions that drive migrants to make such dangerous journeys in the first place, or of the heavy-handed treatment they receive at our borders. We seem to recoil at the thought of people being left to drown in the Mediterranean, but seem less concerned if they drown in the hopelessness and despair of a life sentence in a refugee camp, despite international obligations to care for and resettle those who have been displaced by conflicts.

Our policies on migration, and our overall understanding of the issue, clearly need a rethink. The people who undertake these harrowing journeys are human beings fleeing miserable situations. Some are economic migrants seeking real futures for their children, while others are refugees trying desperately to escape violence and misery. They come from failed states, or countries ripped apart by war or by violence, such as Somalia, Libya or Mexico. (The number of deaths caused directly by armed violence in Mexico last year was 15,000, the third-highest in the world after Syria and Iraq.)

Their plight is a humanitarian crisis that should have no place in our globalized and interconnected world. By viewing migration solely through a macro-economic or political lens, we are losing sight of the individuals who are risking their lives to escape persecution, misery and violence. Instead of empathy, we offer obstacles and brute force. To stop the drownings at sea, Europe discusses blowing up smugglers' boats. To stem the migrant flow on the roads north through Mexico, U.S. pressure led to detentions and forcible clearing of rail lines. This despite all the evidence that repressive policies and bigger barriers do not deter migrant activity, but push it farther underground and into the control of violent criminals.

For many in Canada, it is easy to assume these issues exist only in other countries. We do not have boatloads of people perishing off our shores, nor do we wrestle with hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants crossing our southern border every year. We feel that we are a welcoming country, our doors open to the world.

But Canadians must reflect upon our role in the migrant tragedies. As a free-trade partner with Mexico, we are happy to let goods flow between our countries to create more wealth – but we rarely consider the movement of people in that system. Those who arrive here for non-economic reasons, such as fleeing persecution and war, are often treated harshly and with little care for their well-being. And when we face the mass arrival of refugees on our shores (as in 2010, when the MV Sun Sea appeared off the coast of British Columbia carrying hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamils) we have not always responded with openness.

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, despair and hopelessness of life in such places. Many of our patients suffer from deprivation or assault while trying to move toward better lives.

We do 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 launched our first maritime medical operations on the Mediterranean in the spring, to remind everyone that migrants' health and human needs are just as important as those of everyone else.

One of the physicians aboard our search-and-rescue boat is Simon Bryant, a physician from Canmore, Alta. In a recent dispatch, he explained why he wanted to help those struggling to reach Europe: "It's not about simply rescuing them from dehydration, hypothermia and drowning, but sharing one's humanity. Giving a damn. About a couple of young men in our clinic, quietly weeping, telling a tale I can't imagine living."

Thousands are dying at sea, in detention and on the way to what they hope are better lives. They are people struggling to develop futures for themselves and for their children, and 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 global world has so far been able to muster.