The number of people arriving in Australia to claim asylum jumped by more than a third last year, driven by an increase in arrivals from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Last year 15,800 people claimed asylum in Australia, up 37 per cent from 2011. Afghan nationals (3079) and Sri Lankans (2345) accounted for more than a third of asylum seekers to reach Australian shores.

The increase in the number of Sri Lankans travelling to Australia by boat attracted intense public and political interest last year.

The number of Sri Lankans - mainly young Tamil men, but also Sinhalese, Muslims and small numbers of women and children - to make an asylum claim in Australia jumped from 371 in 2011 to 2345 last year (a rise of 630 per cent, but from a low base), figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show.

The agency's numbers do not include those who arrived by boat after August 13 last year, when Australia restarted offshore processing and, according to the UNHCR, ''have not yet entered a refugee determination process, or been able to lodge a formal claim for protection''.

The number of Sri Lankans who arrived ''irregularly'' by boat on Australian shores increased by a far greater amount last year, from 211 to 6428.

Continued insecurity across Afghanistan and uncertainty over that country's future post-2014 saw the number of Afghan nationals applying for asylum jump 79 per cent to 3079.

And the number of Pakistani asylum seekers reached 1512 last year, up 84 per cent from 2011.

Australia's asylum seeker numbers, while politically sensitive, remain numerically small. Australia receives about 3 per cent of the total asylum claims made in industrialised countries around the world.

The UNHCR noted in its report: ''By comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries.''

Nearly half a million - 493,000 - asylum claims were lodged in industrialised countries last year, the second highest number on record after 2003.

Europe received 355,000 asylum seeker claims, while North America had 103,000. War, civil strife, political repression and sectarian violence continue to force movements of populations across borders.

In particular, conflict in Syria has prompted a new mass wave of refugees fleeing that country.

Afghanistan continues to provide the most asylum seekers of any country in the world, with 36,600 last year, followed by the Syrian Arab Republic, Serbia, China and Pakistan.

''Wars are driving more and more people to seek asylum,'' the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said. ''At a time of conflict, I urge countries to keep their borders open for people fleeing for their lives.''

And while the latest UNHCR figures deal with asylum claims to industrialised countries, more than 80 per cent of refugees live in developing countries.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called for greater equity in assisting displaced people.

''The burden of helping the world's forcibly displaced people is starkly uneven,'' he said. ''Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier ones. While anti-refugee sentiment is heard loudest in industrialised countries, developing nations host 80 per cent of the world's refugees.''

Afghanistan alone has a diaspora of more than 2.7 million refugees across 71 countries, but more than 95 per cent are in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.