Aid agencies rule out 'preferred option' of moving storm-hit Syrian refugees

By Kieran Guilbert LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid agencies dismissed on Wednesday the idea of relocating hundreds of thousands of storm-hit Syrian refugees across the Middle East, citing the large number of refugees, a shortage of funding and a lack of authority. As blizzards, rain and strong winds battered countries including Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, several agencies prepared emergency supplies for refugees facing freezing temperatures in flimsy shelters. Photographs taken by Reuters in Akkar, northern Lebanon, showed Syrian refugees wading through inches of water and standing in a flooded tent in a makeshift settlement. The UN Children's Fund launched a program to allow Syrian families in Jordan to buy winter clothes for their children, while Save the Children and the U.N. refugee agency provided refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with extra blankets, insulation and kits to repair damaged shelters. The United Nations said the preferred option would be to relocate the refugees away from areas affected by the storm, but the situation was far from ideal, and the bad weather was "a blow of nature coming at a very difficult time." The storm is forecast to last several days, threatening further disruption in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have all been affected. "Where you have such large numbers of people, putting host countries under strain, and when there are such issues with funding, relocating people would cause a whole new set of problems," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Francis Markus told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Syria response region media officer for the International Rescue Committee, said most of the refugees in question lived in illegal or informal camps, and aid agencies lacked the authority to move people within a country. At least 200,000 people have died and half the Syrian population of 22 million has been displaced by the conflict that began with anti-government protests in 2011 and became a civil war. In the past four years, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have taken in more than three million Syrian refugees, and continue to bear the brunt of the crisis. According to a UNHCR report published on Wednesday, Lebanon, with 257 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, remained the country with the highest refugee density as of mid-2014, while Jordan ranked second, with 114 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce)