AMMAN, Jordan – Jordan must open a refugee camp for thousands of Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country, a U.N. official said Tuesday, just hours after another 1,000 crossed the border.
The appeal from Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency's representative to Jordan, came during a sudden spike in numbers, adding to 140,000 Syrians already in the country.
For now, though, a new camp remains unused because of Jordan's desire not to anger its powerful Syrian neighbors.
"We will have to do something pretty soon, because we've had 1,000 people arrive (Monday) night," Harper said in a telephone interview. "Over the past four days, the numbers have doubled every night."
He said most are fleeing violence in and around the northern city of Homs, and from Daraa just across the border. Refugees report Syrian troop movements around Daraa and fear a military offensive is about to begin.
Both the U.N. and Jordan's Interior Ministry estimate an average of 400 Syrians were crossing into Jordan daily before the sudden surge.
Harper said a camp must be built to accommodate recent arrivals because of overcrowding at the government's Bashabsheh holding facility. More than 2,000 Syrians are being housed there while their information is being processed.
"We are looking to reduce the numbers at Bashabsheh and spread the current population to other sites," Harper said.
"We're also looking at a longer term facility that can accommodate many more people, because it doesn't make sense to have a whole range of smaller sites. We need to be looking at something which is much larger and can accommodate many more people," he said.
Jordanian government officials had no immediate comment.
Jordan has not opened a refugee camp it built this spring in the hamlet of Ribaa Sarhan, near its border with Syria. It could house 1,000 Syrian families.
Although the 30,000 square meter (36,000 square yard) area has been paved, and electricity and water facilities have been installed, it has not been used.
Government secrecy has limited information on the camp to avoid angering Damascus and dragging Jordan into the conflict. Syria is one of Jordan's largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year. Also, 60 percent of Jordanian exports of mainly fruits and vegetables are routed through Syria for onward shipping to Turkey overland or to Europe.
The refugees fleeing the fighting receive aid from friends, relatives and the Jordanian government.
Syrian refugee families often share rooms in apartments or stay in houses with family or friends, mainly in the northern towns of Ramtha, Mafraq and Irbid along the frontier.
They receive medical and educational assistance from the Jordanian government, as well as aid from private groups and the U.N.'s refugee agency.
The U.N. has urged the international community to boost financial support to countries like Jordan that host the refugees. The U.N. has set the goal for contributions at $192 million.
Jordan hosted about 1.5 million Iraqis during the height of the violence there in 2003-2008. The refugees were a huge drain on the country's resources, and hundreds of thousands remain in the resource-poor kingdom.