By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children and women whose husbands were killed in front of them are among the growing numbers of people fleeing gang violence in Central America, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said, as it urged governments to do more to identify and protect refugees.

Every year, gang violence drives tens of thousands of people from their homes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - countries with the world's highest murder rates.

Most head to the United States in the hope of refuge and a better life.

UNHCR said the number of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reached 109,800 in 2015 – a more than five-fold increase over the past three years.

"People who saw husbands shot in front of their eyes. People who don't want their children to be drawn into gangs. It's a very strong system of repression and exploitation imposed by organized criminal groups that makes violence a key reason why people flee," said Volker Turk, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection.

"They flee extremely precarious situations. The only way for people to save their lives is to flee," Turk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the start of a conference in Costa Rica on Central America's forced displacement problem.

UNHCR said more than 14,600 Hondurans applied for refugee status worldwide in 2015, nearly double the figure in 2014.

The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa and the country's industrial city of San Pedro Sula have the highest murder rates outside a war zone, UNHCR said last month.

"Some see it as only a migration problem, others see it is a refugee problem. It is both. We increasingly need to see this as a forced displacement issue," Turk said by telephone on Wednesday.

"It's growing in numbers, in scope and complexity."

"UTTER DESPAIR"

Rights groups says governments in Central America have either downplayed or been slow to recognize that violence is the main reason why people are fleeing their homes.

Instead governments tend to list people seeking to be reunited with relatives already living in the United States, poverty and the lack of jobs as the key drivers of migration.

The flow of Central American migrants heading to the United States came under the spotlight in 2014 when nearly 70,000 children traveling alone were caught crossing the U.S. border with Mexico, more than double the number apprehended in 2012.

The children were mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

"One of the features of this particular situation is the fact that there are many more children on the move, unaccompanied minors, which is usually an indication of a survival mechanism, of utter despair," Turk said.

He said the problem was being neglected as the world's attention focused on hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from North Africa, and war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, who have been crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.

Turk called on Mexico and other Latin American countries through which migrants and asylum seekers are likely to pass, to strengthen their asylum services.

"We need to make sure asylum systems, including integration measures are robust, comprehensive and are appropriately equipped so that people who have fled violence have the option to stay in the first country they arrive in," he said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)