By Daina Beth Solomon and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The United States and other wealthy nations should do more to resettle migrants and refugees forced to flee their homelands, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Friday.
"We must count on U.S. leadership in refugee protection," Grandi told Reuters in an interview in Mexico City. "Forced displacement is a poor people problem, not a rich people problem. But we need the rich people to do more to share that burden."
During his first official visit to the region since assuming the post last year, the U.N. official said Mexico also needs to step up protection for asylum and refugee applicants, especially along its southern border.
Every year thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, some of the world's most impoverished and violent nations, head north in search of a better life.
But that journey has become increasingly dangerous and expensive, with criminals assaulting, extorting and kidnapping migrants as they attempt to pass through Mexico, forcing some to remain south of the U.S. border.
U.N. figures show some 8,000 people applied for refugee status last year in Mexico, up 5,000 from 2015. Asylum applications in Mexico jumped 150 percent between November 2016 and March 2017, according to Mexican refugee agency COMAR.
"There's been an increase because of the causes that push people to flee - the unbelievable violence perpetrated against civilians in countries like Honduras and El Salvador," Grandi said.
Grappling with drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping, Mexico is witnessing one of its worst periods of violence, and has suffered an estimated 150,000 gang-related murders and about 30,000 disappearances in the past decade.
Washington, meanwhile, has heralded a drop in unauthorized southern border crossings as proof its crackdown on illegal immigration is working.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has also lowered the cap on refugee admissions, setting the limit at 50,000 compared with about 85,000 approved in 2016.
U.S. officials have said they plan to review the migrant-vetting process as well to counter the risk of admitting terrorists. Grandi said he supported the push to improve security, but urged the United States to expand its refugee resettlement program.
Mexico is among the countries that could wind up accepting more refugees and asylum seekers if the United States continues toughening its migration policies.
"If less people go to the United States ... there is a possibility that Mexico will host more," Grandi said.
(Editing by Dave Graham and James Dalgleish)