GENEVA - The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency said.
The UNHCR said there were 51.2 million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2013, a full six million higher than the previous year.
"The numbers we are announcing today do not represent good news. On the contrary, they represent a quantum leap in forced displacement around the world," said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.
"For the first time since the Second World War we had in 2013 more than 50 million people displaced by conflict or by persecution, either crossing borders or within the borders of their country," he told reporters during a visit to Lebanon.
Lebanon and other countries neighbouring Syria have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis sparked by that nation's civil war.
The civil war in Syria is largely to blame for the global increase, the UNHCR said in its annual report, released on World Refugee Day.
Since the conflict erupted in March 2011, a total of 2.5 million people have fled Syria, with 6.5 million more displaced inside the country.
The Central African Republic and South Sudan crises have also sparked new waves of displacement, while enduring violence in Afghanistan and Somalia has continued to feed the numbers.
"The world has shown a very limited capacity to prevent conflicts and to find a timely solution for them," said Guterres.
"And so since conflicts erupt, impunity and unpredictability become the name of the game, and the consequences are dramatic for those millions and millions of people suffering so much," he added.
The spiralling numbers have huge implications for aid budgets, and place massive strains on nations on the front-lines of refugee crises, the UNHCR said.
Its data covers three groups: refugees, asylum-seekers, and the internally displaced.
Refugee numbers reached 16.7 million people worldwide, the highest since 2001.
"The number of new refugees last year was 2.5 million, the highest number since the Rwanda genocide," of 1994, Guterres noted.
A total of 6.3 million have been exiled for over five years, the agency said, not including five million Palestinians aided by the UN Relief and Works Agency, a separate body.
Overall, the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care came from Afghanistan, Syrian and Somalia, who together form over half the global total.
The world's top refugee hosts were Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon.
The regions with the largest refugee populations were Asia and the Pacific, with a total of 3.5 million.
Sub-Saharan Africa totalled 2.9 million and the Middle East and North Africa, 2.6 million.
- Shirking responsibility -
With most refugees hosted by poorer countries, human rights campaign group Amnesty International said rich nations must do far more to shoulder the load.
"The globe's self-styled leaders are lagging far behind the developing world when it comes to bearing the burden of the global refugee crisis," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of Amnesty's refugees and migrants programme.
"Given the economic advantages rich countries have over poor, it's doubly shocking to see them shirking their responsibility."
Amnesty said that just three countries -- Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey -- registered a total of almost 1,525,000 refugees from Syria alone last year.
In contrast, it said, the 28 countries of the European Union have pledged to resettle less than 30,500 Syrians -- with Germany taking the vast majority at 25,500.
Amnesty slammed China and Russia for doing almost nothing for refugees, despite being the two powers it said had done the most to block UN efforts to end the Syrian war.
In addition to refugees, 1.1 million people submitted asylum applications, the majority in developed countries, with Germany the largest single recipient.
Syrians lodged 64,300 claims, more than any other nationality, while 60,400 came from conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They were followed by 57,400 people from Myanmar, where minority Muslim Rohingya have fled state-backed persecution and sectarian violence.
Underlining the stark nature of the globe's conflicts, a record 25,300 applications were from children separated from or unaccompanied by parents.
The UNHCR said the world's 33.3 million internally displaced people were particularly hard-hit, since many are in hard-to-reach conflict zones and they also lack the protection afforded to refugees under international treaties.
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Global refugee numbers highest since WWII: UN