The UN says 7.6 million people became refugees in 2012, with the total number now higher than at any time since 1994.
A report from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that Syria is "a major new factor" driving up refugee numbers.
The report says 55% of all refugees come from five countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria.
It also found that developing countries now hosted 81% of the world's refugees, 11% more than a decade ago.
"These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them," said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.
Mr Guterres said that the figure of 7.6 million meant there was a new displaced person every 4.1 seconds. "Each time you blink another person is forced to flee," he said.
The UNHCR says the figures are based on data from the agency itself as well as from governments and other NGOs.
Afghanistan remained the world's biggest source of refugees, a position it has now held for 32 years, with 95% of Afghan refugees located in either Iran or Pakistan.
Somalis were the second biggest group of refugees in 2012, followed by Iraqis. Syrians were the fourth biggest group.
The figures do not, however, reflect the additional one million people who have fled Syria in the last six months.
The UN says if current trends persist, a further two million people will have left Syria by the end of this year. In the next few days it is expected to ask European countries to take at least some of them in.
The report also says there has been a marked rise in displacement from Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mali's army, heavily backed by France, has been fighting Islamist and ethnic Tuareg rebels this year. Islamists seized control of the north of the country after a military coup last year.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 800,000 people have fled since fighting broke out last year between government forces and the M23 rebel movement.