By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico expects a sharp increase in people seeking asylum from Central America next year, fleeing gang warfare and poverty in their home countries, a senior official said on Thursday.
There has been a steady surge of Central Americans applying for asylum in Mexico since 2015. Cinthia Perez, a director of Mexico's refugee agency COMAR, said in an interview that she is receiving about 9 percent more applications each month.
There were 3,424 asylum applications in 2015, and she predicts ending 2016 with around 8,000. That figure could well rise to 22,501 by the end of 2017 if the trend of 9 percent more applications each month continues.
"Everything seems to indicate that the number of applicants will keep rising," Perez said, adding that violence and a widespread regional drought that had forced the rural poor into cities were the main causes driving asylum applications.
She said 72 percent of applications have been accepted in 2016, up from just under 40 percent in 2013.
Perez said there was evidence that more of those people granted asylum were choosing to stay in Mexico, but she acknowledged that some might use their refugee status to travel unimpeded up to the United States border.
During fiscal year 2016, the United States detained nearly 410,000 people along the southwest border with Mexico, up about a quarter from the previous year. The vast majority hail from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
COMAR was founded in 1980, during the height of the Guatemalan civil war, when tens of thousands of refugees flooded into Mexico. Until 2015, when the numbers of asylum-seekers started rising drastically, the agency was a relative backwater inside the interior ministry.
Last year, COMAR spent just over 26 million pesos ($1.28 million) according to official data, a tiny amount relative to the problem. Perez said she was hoping for more funds in the 2017 budget, but acknowledged a sustained drop in government oil revenue made it unlikely.
In September, after realizing COMAR was struggling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stepped in and gave COMAR money to hire fresh staff.
It remains to be seen how U.S. President-elect Trump will handle the issue of immigration, a topic he used to great effect in his election campaign. He vowed to deport millions of undocumented U.S. immigrants, build a wall along the Mexican border and possibly even impound remittances.
Nonetheless, since he won the Nov. 8 vote, Trump has appeared to soften some of his immigration policy proposals.
After Trump's victory, Central American countries said migrants were surging north in order to reach the United States before Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
The foreign ministers of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala last month agreed to create a migrant protection network, liaise for coordination with U.S. authorities and to meet regularly.
($1 = 20.3332 pesos)
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Grant McCool)