GENEVA, Switzerland -- Fifteen million men, women and children -- more than ever -- are biding their time outside their countries, often in great deprivation, internationally recognized as refugees.
Officials concerned with the problems of uprooted people believe these refugees to be only part of one of the overriding problems of this age.
Thorvald Stoltenberg, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, sees those who have been granted refugee status as the formally acknowledged segment of a worldwide mass migration of the deprived toward more prosperous regions.
Official and nonofficial specialists the world over share his perception. Increasingly, such newcomers seek the protection of refugee status to legitimize their stay, despite efforts by governments to limit asylum requests.
Applications to Europe, the United States and Canada, the traditional asylum-granting regions, have risen from 25,000 in 1973 to 600,000 this year, according to estimates.
That does not include migrants living illegally in parts of the world.
John A. Scanlan, an Indiana University Law School professor who is an authority on the subject, said the level now exceeds the number of refugees after World War II.
A State Department report in June 1945 estimated the total refugee count at 33 million to 43 million.
Mr. Scanlan said that by the end of 1948, the total had dropped more than half, to between 16 million and 18 million.
In recent years, countries have used various measures to thwart applications for asylum, like the U.S. policy of turning back Haitian boat people while they are still at sea.
Roger P. Winter, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, said in an interview in Washington that of 22,000 Haitians intercepted by the Coast Guard since 1981, only 6 had been allowed to proceed to port.
Officials of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees said that immigration agents in Western Europe often search airliners before allowing passengers to get off and turn back potential asylum-seekers before they can apply.
Sometimes, the officials go to countries likely to produce refugees and sit next to airline employees at check-in counters to deny boarding passes to people suspected of wanting asylum.
The stream of migrants is blurring established definitions of who is a refugee and casts suspicion over the motives of those who claim asylum to escape violence or persecution in their own countries.
Mr. Stoltenberg said such suspicions are misguided because morally the motivation of people fleeing poverty is equally valid.
"The problem is poverty," said Mr. Stoltenberg, 59, a former minister of defense and foreign affairs in Norway as well as a longtime leader of the Labor Party there.
"The majority of the world live in deep poverty. People will say: 'Whyshould this happen now? After all, we have had poverty since historic times.' They forget that we have had two revolutions.
"First, there is the information revolution. People now, even if they are very poor, know how people live in other parts of the world. The other is the transport revolution. It is much easier than before to be transported over long distances. We cannot hide away anymore. You can't hide away from the world."
In a 90-minute interview at his agency's headquarters, the high commissioner singled out the controversy over the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong as characterizing the complexities of the problem.
It encapsulates the grave questions posed by mass migrations and illustrates both the divisions that occur among those who receive appeals for asylum and the dilemmas facing those who are entrusted with the care of the uprooted.
"The Hong Kong situation is a symbol of what might face us all over the world," Mr. Stoltenberg said.
About 55,000 Vietnamese are confined in camps intentionally kept at minimum survival level by the British colonial authorities as a way of deterring further arrivals.
"People are living on shelves," said the high commissioner.
BIn a screening started by Britain in 1988, which broke its 13-year pattern of automatically granting refugee status to fleeing Vietnamese, most boat people have been labeled "economic migrants," meaning they did not flee persecution but poverty.
According to an agreement overseen by the high commissioner that was reached last year by all concerned countries, those "screened out" are to be returned to Vietnam.
That assent by the organization charged with being the advocate for refugees has provoked debate both within the agency and in nongovernmental refugee organizations.
If voluntary returns do not resolve the problem, forcible repatriation, for which no date was set, was implicitly agreed to.
About 4,000 Vietnamese have gone back of their free will, and 51 were deported in November.
Forced returns were then suspended because Vietnam and the United States, in rare agreement, raised strenuous objections.