Jordan struggles to cope with tide of Syrian refugees

With an estimated 140,000 having fled Syria since the conflict began, already strained resources in Jordan are reaching breaking point.

Firas Masri, 32, from the village of Ataman near Daraa, fled Syria to the Bashabsheh transit centre with his wife and children. Conditions are rough. "I haven't showered in three days!" he said.
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RAMTHA, JORDAN // They flee the violence at home for the dusty transit centres in Jordan, and as the number of Syrian refugees grows so does the spectre of another refugee crisis for a country all too accustomed to them.

About 3,000 have arrived since Monday, according to United Nations officials, which is straining the ability of aid agencies and the government to provide help.

In previous months 100 to 300 refugees crossed the border each day and, based on Jordanian government figures, UN agencies estimate 140,000 Syrians have entered the country since Syria's uprising began in March 2011.

Most arrived through unofficial crossing points without documentation. From there Jordanian security personnel take them to one of four transit facilities near the Syrian border that the government, aid agencies and wealthy individuals in the Jordanian community have built to help register them.

Those facilities are now "completely overcrowded", said Andrew Harper, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative to Jordan.

International financial contributions are insufficient for the scale of the task, he said. "We are struggling at the moment."

UNHCR needed at least US$23 million (Dh84.4m) from donors to respond adequately to Jordan's Syrian relief effort, but it has received only about US$6 million.

Last month, UNHCR and more than 40 humanitarian agencies called for US$193m to help the 100,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

Syrian regime forces have killed anywhere from 16,000 to 20,000 people since the uprising began, according to activists.

Refugees at the Bashabsheh transit facility in the border town of Ramtha said many more Syrians would flee because of intensified fighting, especially in southern areas near Deraa, on the border with Jordan.

"They're carpet-bombing the villages; they're killing any man over the age of 16," said Omar Khatib, 20, who fled with his brother, Mohammed, 18, on Friday. They hid in fields to avoid attacks by pro-government shabbiha militias on their way to Jordan.

Mr Khatib and others described efforts by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to help people escape to Jordan.

Hanan Sulkhadi, a pregnant 31-year-old, fled with her six children on Thursday. FSA men led them and several hundred others for dozens of kilometres on empty roads and through fields to an informal border crossing, where Jordanian security personnel met them.

"Nobody could talk - if you did, the army would find us and kill us," she said. "All we want is to live a normal life, but the army attacks blindly. It doesn't matter if you're a woman or a child."

Designed to hold 500 people, Bashabsheh has been overwhelmed in the past week and now hosts an estimated 2,500.

Sitting side-by-side under makeshift tarpaulins and tents in a dusty courtyard, parents comforted children traumatised by the rocket and artillery attacks that forced them to flee. Young men crammed under an olive tree for shade. They had suffered savage beatings by government forces. Some were nursing gunshot wounds.

Frustrations boiled. Firas Masri, 32, who came to Bashabsheh with his wife and two children last week from a small village near Deraa, complained about the facilities. "I haven't showered in three days," he said.

The influx of refugees has caused concern in Jordan. The economy is reeling as government debt stands at about US$20 billion and water resources are scarce.

In an unstable region, Jordan's stability has made it a popular destination for the displaced. Millions of Palestinians have fled to Jordan because of wars with Israel, and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 hundreds of thousands of Iraqis streamed over the border, which caused painful increases in prices of everything from food to housing.

Unlike the relatively educated and wealthy refugees from Iraq, the Syrians are often poor and potentially more dependent on largesse, said Yusuf Mansur, an economist who runs EnConsult, a consulting firm in Amman.

This could place further strain on subsidised resources such as water and electricity in the short term, he said.

Some officials resent that Jordan had become the region's primary refugee destination.

"You always hear everyone thanking the international community, the aid agencies for helping Syrians, but never - never - do they thank Jordan," said a government official in Ramtha.

However, other Jordanians in the city blamed the government for shirking its responsibility to the refugees.

Thaer Bashabsheh's family donated the buildings at the Bashabsheh facility for the Syrian relief effort. He criticised the government's policy of requiring Syrians who arrive without documentation to obtain sponsorship from local Jordanian families.

Under this system, thousands of Syrians are classified as guests, but he accused the government of using this classification as a way to keep refugee figures in the country artificially low.

Syria is a major trading partner for Jordan.

about 30,000 of the Syrians in Jordan had registered with UNHCR, said Mr Bashabsheh, 34. "The government doesn't want to antagonise the Syrian government, so they try to make it seem like the number of refugees is lower than it really is."

Jordan processes Syrians with proper documents according to regular immigration rules.

The government has so far declined to open a refugee camp near the Syrian border, completed in the spring, which could house up to 1,000 families.

For those who made it to Bashabsheh, such as Huda, 21, who fled her village of Ataman with her husband, there is little time to ponder the details of government policy. A mortar attack levelled her family home, killing her two infant children.

"Only God knows what will happen to us now," she said.