By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Gang violence in parts of Central America has created a refugee crisis reminiscent of the 1980s when wars forced large numbers from their home countries, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - sometimes called Central America's Northern Triangle - have headed to neighboring countries as well as the United States where immigration is a key issue in this year's presidential election.
"The number of people fleeing violence in Central America - much of it gang-related - has surged to levels not seen since the 1980s, the period when the region was wracked by armed conflicts," Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing.
"The figures are staggering."
The United States remains the main country receiving asylum applications from the Northern Triangle countries, and that number doubled in 2015 compared with 2014, preliminary data suggest, the UNHCR said, without disclosing a total figure.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would try to force Mexico to pay for a wall to be built along the U.S. border by blocking remittances from immigrants in the United States, his campaign office said on Tuesday.
Some 3,423 people, most from El Salvador and Honduras, sought asylum in Mexico in 2015, a 65 percent rise, Edwards said. In Costa Rica, 2,203 claims were registered last year, while in tiny Belize, 633 people sought asylum, a 10-fold jump over 2014. Nicaragua and Panama recorded similar increases.
"Large-scale violence and persecution at the hands of armed criminal actors have now become, along with poverty and unemployment, the primary driver of refugee and migrants flows from the Northern Triangle," Edwards said.
He called on the countries receiving refugees to do more to protect the most vulnerable.
"We're particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual and gender-based violence and murder," Edwards said.
UNHCR said it was helping governments improve their ability to identify people eligible for international protection.
"At present, we're seeing situations where children and teenagers are being detained in some cases in detention centers," Edwards said.
"It's really crucial that the authorities in these countries do have the necessary resources and means to provide viable alternatives to these children."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)