The United Nations has said the number of refugees worldwide has reached its highest level in almost 20 years.

An average of one person is being displaced every four seconds.

New figures released by the UN Refugee Agency show that last year, nearly eight million people had to flee their homes - most because of conflict.

By the end of last year, more than 45 million people worldwide were refugees, seeking asylum or forced to move from the homes to another area of their own country.

The head of the United Nations refugee agency in Ireland has said the conflict in Syria has been a major contributing factor to the huge increase in the number of refugees worldwide.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Sophie Magennis said that of the 45 million displaced people in 2012, half have fled from major conflicts.

She said: "In 2012, the number of people fleeing from Syria was just under 700,000.

"That has escalated massively since then, we're looking at nearly 1.6 million who've left Syria up to the last (latest) month of this year - Syria has played an important role in the rise of the figures."

Ms Magennis said the largest proportion of refugees have come from Afghanistan where there has been conflict for almost 30 years. The next highest number comes from Somalia.

However, she said that the report shows that new crises are compounding the global refugee problem.

"There have been additional people displaced in 2012, but the existing refugee crises are continuing," she said.