By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Lebanon should grant free medical care to destitute Syrian refugees, many of whom are denied treatment for heart disease and other chronic ailments because they cannot afford it, Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Thursday.
Lebanese authorities should also set up more reception centers and group shelters to cope with the growing influx into the country of 4 million people which lacks refugee camps, the aid group also known as Doctors Without Borders said.
In a report, MSF criticized both the Lebanese government and U.N. refugee agency for what it called slow and problematic procedures for Syrians to register as refugees, a necessary step to receive food and other assistance.
"When you are talking about families who are leaving everything behind in a war zone, who arrive with children, it's not acceptable that sometimes they have to have to wait weeks or months before receiving the first assistance, Bruno Jochum, general director of MSF in Switzerland, told a news briefing.
The MSF report said: "Syrian refugees and other displaced people now living in Lebanon have profound humanitarian needs that are not being met. A similar situation is playing out in other countries hosting Syrian refugees, as well."
Some 172,361 Syrian refugees have registered in Lebanon since the start of the crisis, while a further 88,582 have entered the country but not yet signed up as refugees, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Many live in unfinished buildings, farms and garages.
An MSF survey in Lebanon in December found that 52 percent of Syrians could not afford treatment for chronic illnesses. One-third had stopped treatment as it was too costly, it said.
The Beirut government requires refugees to pay 15 percent of their medical costs, the same as vulnerable Lebanese, according to MSF. "Fifteen percent is way too much for a lot of these families and it's simply hampering their access," Jochum said.
The UNHCR said it had geared up to help Syrians, who arrived at the rate of 35,000 in the past month against several hundred per month a year ago. It is opening new reception centers in Bekaa Valley and Tyre this month to speed processing.
UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said the agency was working double shifts, expanding refugees sites and providing financial assistance for Syrians unable to make ends meet.
"Emergency life-saving health care is offered free of charge for all Syrians. Those who can't pay are on the top of our list for financial support," Wilkes added.
In all, nearly 775,000 Syrians have fled their homeland to neighboring countries, according to UNHCR. Most have fled to Lebanon, its smallest neighbor whose politicians fear the 22-month-old conflict could disrupt a sectarian balance loosely held since the end of its own 15-year civil war in 1990.
Lebanon's cabinet asked foreign donors last month for $180 million to help care for Syrians, now 6 percent of the population.
Jochum, referring to Syrian refugees across Lebanon, said that a scattered refugee population makes aid more complicated.
"That's why in places like Lebanon, where indeed camps are always a politicized issue, at least collective shelters should be made much more widely and quickly available," he said.
MSF operates five clinics and mobile teams in Lebanon but has been refused access to Syria by President Bashar al-Assad's government. More than 60,000 have been killed there during a revolt that turned into a civil war after security forces fired on demonstrations.
MSF says it now works in some rebel-held areas in Syria.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Oliver Holmes)