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In Central African Republic, they ran from home and slept under the trees. In Colombia, they dared not return to their villages. From Syria, they fled by the hundreds of thousands, escaping barrel bombs and summary executions.

Civil war forced a staggering 51 million people worldwide to leave home by the end of 2013, according to the United Nations, and that was before they started fleeing Iraq in droves as fighters from a Sunni extremist group swept through the north.

According to the U.N. annual report released Friday, most of the forcibly displaced worldwide are homeless in their own countries and are known as internally displaced persons. An additional 16.7 million people are refugees in another land.

Half are children.

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Although the refugee numbers were higher after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, what distinguishes this report is the sharp increase in the ranks of the internally displaced since their numbers began to be tallied about 20 years ago.

Syrians today make up the single largest group of internally displaced persons, with 6.5 million displaced within the country by the end of 2013. In Colombia, although bitter rebellion is on the wane, 5.4 million remain displaced, and 3 million are displaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Change for Syria

It is the war in Syria that most dramatically illustrates how quickly a country’s fate can be upended by civil war. In 2008, it was the world’s second-largest refugee-hosting country. By 2013, it was the world’s second-largest refugee-producing country. The vast majority of Syrian refugees have poured into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, while an additional 6.5 million remain displaced inside Syria’s borders, including those who remain beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies. More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled to other countries.

“There is no humanitarian response able to solve the problems of so many people,” the U.N. refugee agency’s head, Antonio Guterres, said at a news conference in Geneva. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find the capacity and resources to deal with so many people in such tragic circumstances.”

Close to 11 million people were newly displaced last year, the report noted. Conflicts this year in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and now Iraq threaten to push levels of displacement higher by year’s end, Guterres added.

“The 2013 levels of forcible displacement were the highest since at least 1989, the first year that comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement existed,” the report states.

In 2013, Afghans, Syrians and Somalis accounted for more than half the total number of refugees. Most refugees worldwide do not end up in the world’s rich countries.

Pakistan and Iran hosted the largest numbers of refugees, with 1.6 million and nearly 900,000 from a succession of wars in Afghanistan over the past 35 years. Syria’s neighbors also have felt the strain of so many newcomers in the past three years.

Money for humanitarian aid lags. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week that it had asked donor countries for a record $16.9 billion this year, with the largest single share of that for Syria. Only 30 percent of that had come in.

Changing pattern of war

Humanitarian organizations that cater to the needs of the displaced find new challenges. For instance, said Sophie Delaunay, executive director of the U.S. chapter of Doctors without Borders, heightened insecurity had increasingly made it difficult for aid workers to reach the displaced in places like South Sudan and Syria. “Either they are stuck or NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) can’t go because it’s too risky,” she said.

Other times, she added, there are remarkably few aid agencies that operate even in accessible places where huge numbers of displaced people congregate, like the airport in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic.

The movements of refugees are a glimpse into the trouble spots of the world. In 1975, the agency counted just over 3.6 million refugees, with the largest number from Ethiopia.

By 1992, there were nearly 18 million refugees worldwide, with over 4 million of them from Afghanistan alone. By 2004, the total number had dipped to about 9 million, but by then refugees from Darfur had begun to flee Sudan.

The shifting flows of the displaced also reflect the changing pattern of war, which has gone from pitting countries against each other to warring factions vying for control within countries, often with guns and gunmen from abroad, as in the case of Congo and Syria. “The nature of displacement is very different,” Alexander Betts, a professor of refugee studies at Oxford, said in a telephone interview. “The cases of displacement are very different, and the needs of the displaced population are very different.”

The total number of refugees also include the long-term displaced, like the 5 million Palestinians who were uprooted starting in 1948. Also among the 51 million are more than 1 million asylum seekers, the largest numbers of them in Germany, the United States and South Africa.

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