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Syrian refugees flood Jordan, straining resources

The rate of Syrian refugee arrivals to Jordan has tripled this week as the civil war there deepens. That's a reminder that Syria's problems are spreading beyond its borders.

By Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / July 5, 2012

Jordanians and Syrian refugees take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, May 30.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters

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Amman, Jordan

For months, Jordan has been struggling with a steady influx of refugees from Syria, but the latest surge in the violence there may have pushed the small desert kingdom’s capacity to the breaking point.

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On Monday night nearly 1,000 Syrians sneaked across Jordan’s northern border with assistance from the Free Syrian Army, according to officials at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). On Tuesday night, there were 790 more. And last night, officials estimate there were 639.

In short, the trickle of refugees from the Syrian civil war into Jordan is turning into a torrent. For the past two months, nightly refugee arrivals had ranged from 50 to 300 people. The growing influx is straining the ability of Jordanian government and international aid agencies to help, and is a reminder that the Syrian war is reverberating far beyond its own borders.

During the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees flooded into Jordan. Jordan has a long history of dealing with refugee crises, notably waves of Palestinians and Iraqis. The international community has always supported the kingdom in providing services to those who used the country as a safe haven in a turbulent region. But today, that support is running thin.

“Hopefully it’s a spike and it goes back down, but what we don’t know is how many thousands of people are coming behind this group,” says Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative in Jordan. “Are we prepared to accept 1,000 people coming through a night?”

The transit centers that Jordan has set up for the refugees are completely overwhelmed. The main center, Bashabsheh, is a small complex of buildings and shipping containers on the edge of the Jordanian town of Ramtha. It is bleak and crowded even at its recommended capacity of about 500 people. This week, Mr. Harper says, it is crammed with between 2,500 and 1,4000 and UNHCR and other aid agencies are working full-tilt just to provide the new arrivals with food, water and blankets.

“The current situation is not sustainable,” Harper says. “We need to be thinking much bigger than we are at the moment.” UNHCR is working with the Jordanian government to select another, much bigger site to house new arrivals, and hopes to have one soon.

But it is not yet clear what form the new facility will take. So far, most of the refugees who have made it over the border have not been sequestered in camps, but are held temporarily in transit centers like Bashabsheh, until they can find a Jordanian sponsor who will take legal responsibility for them. Generally, this process takes hours or days, though some families without connections can end up waiting longer. Once out, refugees have been renting houses or staying with local families. The Jordanian government has allowed those who register with UNHCR to use public health facilities, and send their children to public schools. Many families have been assisted by local, primarily Islamic charity organizations. But the new influx is straining this situation.

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