Middle East

Jordan struggles with Syrian refugee influx

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Media captionJordanian transit camps have been overflowing with Syrian refugees

There is not much life in the Bashabsheh transit centre.

Half a dozen metal containers are strewn with piles of foam mattresses, blankets, and chunks of stale bread. A child's purple see-saw and a lonely swing sway in the wind.

This facility, close to the Syrian border, was erected months ago to give temporary shelter to dozens of Syrians crossing daily.

But it has just been shut as Jordan moves a growing influx of displaced Syrians into a new tented city in the desert, the first official refugee camp.

Syrians taking refuge in Bashabsheh held a protest, in vain.

"We are implementing a clear plan to serve the refugees, and protect all their rights," said Samih Maayteh, Jordan's information minister and government spokesman. "But we also have to protect the rights of the Jordanian state."

Jordan now fears this mounting refugee crisis will overwhelm its own limited resources, and threaten its stability.

'Difficult'

Another transit centre in King Abdullah Park, a sprawling compound of metal containers and large burlap tents, was built for 800, but 8,000 came.

"This centre is a mess," regretted Ahmed, an English literature student who escaped this week from the embattled city of Deraa, just across the border. "The food is ok, but the bathrooms are dirty, and the water is so hot."

But, as bad as it is, the tented city is much worse.

"It's difficult here, but impossible there," insisted Ahmed.

Image caption Deserted: Syrians protested unsuccessfully against the closure of the Bashabsheh camp

The first Syrians to be moved into the tented city at Zaatari called friends and family at King Abdullah Park to tell them: "Don't come."

"People who went there said there was sand between tents, snakes and scorpions, no water, no health care. And the weather is so hot," Ahmed said.

Jordanian officials said conditions at the tented city would improve as more services were provided and a new community was built.

But most Syrians want to stay with relatives and friends.

Of the more than 140,000 Syrians who the authorities says have already entered Jordan, the majority have been absorbed into communities long knit together by strong family, tribal and economic ties.

But Jordan says it is placing a huge burden on its all services including scarce water and electricity, and crowded schools.

"When we came here we were sure our relatives would receive us," said one frustrated man at King Abdullah Park who, like most Syrians, did not want to be identified. "We weren't expecting to stay."

Scrambling to escape

At the entrance, I ran into a harried Syrian man dragging a big red suitcase.

"I've come from Abu Dhabi," he said, catching his breath. "I've been trying for two days to get my mother and father out of this camp."

Security forces guard all the exits, stopping everyone who walks in or out.

Western and Jordanian sources say the "bail-out" system was being abused.

They say Jordanian employers looking for labour pretended to be personally connected to Syrians desperate to get out of the transit centres.

There are even reports of young Syrian wives being bought for a cheap price, and of young children being abused.

One Western aid official admitted people were still managing to escape.

"We counted the numbers at King Abdullah Park and there seem to be a few thousand fewer people than we thought," he said, without providing an explanation.

There are reports of families scrambling over the walls.

Image caption Conditions in the Zaatari tent city are basic

"I would rather go back to Syria to die under gunfire than live in a tent," declared Bassma, a forthright woman living in a rented house in the border town of Ramtha.

"We would breathe dust, not air. That's no life, no life at all. "

Bassma, her husband and five children are now sharing their space with a striking young woman with two young boys whose sad fate elicited an outpouring of sympathy from Jordanians.

Her six-year-old son Bilal was the first child to die trying to flee here.

"There were 31 of us," she said tearfully, recounting details of their late-night escape. "When we reached the area between the Jordanian and Syrian borders, we were fired upon. Bilal and I were at the back of the group. He fell after the first shot."

Security fears

There are now almost daily exchanges between Syrian forces shooting at refugees, and Jordanian soldiers providing covering fire.

Security has been reinforced all along the border. Everyone who enters - legally or illegally - is carefully vetted as Jordan tries to prevent the smuggling of arms, as well as the entry of activists bent on creating trouble in the kingdom.

Jordanian sources said one Syrian group carrying weapons had already been detained.

"We remember all too well the horrific bombing of Jordanian hotels in 2005 after the war in Iraq," recounted one senior Jordanian official, who said explosives were being smuggled in then.

Jordan has long been battered by its neighbours' crises, but Syria's turmoil comes at a time when Jordan is in a severe financial crisis and facing its own pressures for political reform.

"If we open the door to so many big questions, it will create big problems for us," explained Mr Maayteh. "Our first priority is the security of Jordan and Jordanians."

Syrians are still welcome, but Jordan comes first.