New, harsher U.S. refugee policies are only worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis in Central America, the medical group Doctors Without Borders said Thursday.
And the Mexican government is also doing little to help them, the group, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF, said in a new report. Sometimes Mexican security forces are themselves attacking the refugees and raping women, for instance, the group said.
Virtually all the refugees seen at the group's clinics over the past two years had lived through a violent event, either at home or on their journey north, MSF said.
"Murder, kidnappings, threats, recruitment by non-state armed actors, extortion, sexual violence, and forced disappearance — these are the realities of war and conflicts also faced by people in this region of Central America," said Bertrand Rossier, MSF's head of mission in Mexico.
"We see gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma ... mutilation of body parts during kidnappings, for example, breaking of bones, wounds from being thrown out of trains," said Carla Denti, medical coordinator for MSF Mexico.
But the refugees and immigrants repeatedly said that what they are fleeing is even worse, and they are willing to take the risks. MSF said governments need to recognize this.
"Attempts to stem migration by strengthening national borders and increased detention or deportation, as we have seen in Mexico and in the U.S., ignore a genuine humanitarian crisis and do not curb smuggling and trafficking," Rossier said.
"These strategies have devastating consequences on the lives and health of people on the move."
President Donald Trump has promised to crack down on illegal immigration and his vow to build a border wall was one of the centerpieces of his campaign. His administration has pointed to a sharp decline is arrests of immigrants at the Mexican border as evidence the policy is already working.
Over the past three years, MSF has offered medical help or advice to more than 33,000 people. An estimated half a million people cross into Mexico from central America every year, the group said.
The report said the violence inflicted on the refugees is similar to what the group has seen in war zones.
"MSF teams have witnessed and documented a pattern of violent displacement, persecution, sexual violence, and forced repatriation akin to the conditions found in the deadliest armed conflicts in the world today," the report said.
It said more than 68 percent of immigrants said they'd been victims of violence en route.
"Nearly one-third of the women surveyed had been sexually abused during their journey," the report added. "MSF patients reported that the perpetrators of violence included members of gangs and other criminal organizations, as well as members of the Mexican security forces responsible for their protection."
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U.S. officials routinely dismiss the refugees as merely seeking jobs and opportunity. "While there are certainly people leaving [Central America] for better economic opportunities in the United States, the data presented in this report also paints a dire picture of a story of migration from [Central America] as one of people running for their lives," the report reads.
"To play on public fears and merely view these people as a security or an economic issue is shortsighted," Rossier added.
"This is a humanitarian crisis and MSF calls for urgent, coordinated action to ensure that people on the move are safe from violence and persecution."
The group said no country should send people back to places where they fear persecution or death.
"Countries of refuge, such as the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, should increase their formal resettlement and family reunification quotas, so that people from [Central America] in need of international protection, including asylum, can stop risking their lives and health," the group recommended.