Lebanese patriarch suggests housing Syrian refugees in Syria

GENEVA Wed Apr 9, 2014 11:52am EDT

GENEVA (Reuters) - The head of Lebanon's Maronite Christian Church suggested on Wednesday that Syrian refugees should be housed in camps inside Syria, reflecting growing frustration among Lebanese over the burden imposed on their country by their neighbors' war.

The United Nations has registered 1 million refugees in Lebanon since the conflict began three years ago, the highest concentration of refugees worldwide. They are housed in homes and local communities rather than refugee camps.

Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, told a news conference in Geneva that the presence of so many Syrians represented a huge economic, social, political and security burden for Lebanon.

"Why not install some camps for them in Syrian territory where there is security? The area of Syria is 20 times greater than that of Lebanon," he said.

"There is plenty of spare space in secure terrority or at least to facilitate the passage of humanitarian aid in no man's land between the borders of Lebanon and Syria."

Ordinary Lebanese had welcomed the Syrians but were now paying a price for doing so, he said.

"They take all the work from the Lebanese people and the Lebanese are chased out. It's not possible."

Al-Rai did not elaborate on the suggestion of building camps in Syria or say exactly where they could be built.

Many refugees coming to Lebanon fled as Syrian forces and Hezbollah captured territory from rebels close to the border, making it unlikely they would risk returning to areas controlled by those same forces.

And while the refugee population has ballooned - not just in Lebanon but also Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, to a total of 2.65 million - even greater numbers are displaced within Syria.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates 6.5 million are displaced within the country, and many have been made homeless more than once, as an apparently safe shelter became caught up in new fighting.

Hundreds of thousands more have left Syria but not requested international assistance.

Many Syrians have requested asylum in rich countries, especially Sweden and Germany, but the numbers gaining asylum or being resettled for humanitarian reasons are a tiny fraction of the total.

Despite a huge humanitarian appeal and universal calls for an end to the violence, the U.N. has too little cash to feed Syrians in need and has begun cutting their rations.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)