MAFRAQ, Jordan – Jordan opened a new refugee camp Tuesday near the border with Syria to accommodate the growing number of people fleeing the deadly violence in the neighboring country, days after the U.N. refugee agency appealed to the kingdom to make more room to meet the surge in the cross-border flow.
Authorities here have been reluctant to set up refugee camps, possibly to avoid angering Syrian President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime by showing images at his doorstep of civilians fleeing his military onslaught against them.
A separate camp, which was to host the UNHCR and the agency's own tents, was set up months ago in the town of Ribaa Sarhan near the Syrian border, but has remained unused while Syrian refugees stayed in heavily-guarded housing compounds in several towns along the border.
Jordan's Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said Tuesday the new camp in the northern border town of Ramtha had to be set up because Syrian refugees could no longer be absorbed into border communities.
"We had to move quickly to make extra room for the refugees, whose numbers swelled in recent days," he told The Associated Press.
Since the uprising in Syria broke out in March 2011, Jordan has provided shelter for 140,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon hosts about 30,000 Syrians and Turkey has taken in tens of thousands of others.
Aid workers have said that a sudden surge of 3,600 refugees last week increased pressure on Jordan, though the numbers tapered off over the weekend because of a Syrian military onslaught that hampered the movement of civilians trying to make their way to Jordan.
The Interior Ministry said as many as 1,000 refugees crossed over each day last week, four times the previous daily average of 250 people. The discrepancy in the numbers could not be immediately reconciled.
As Ramtha's trailer camp opened around midday, a handful of Syrian refugees quickly moved in. Meanwhile, Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency's representative to Jordan, said bulldozers were digging the ground in the bleak Jordanian desert at the nearby Zaatari village for a second camp.
It was not immediately clear when that camp would be finished or whether Jordan would eventually use the third camp, at Ribaa Sarhan.
Maaytah said the camp at Zaatari will be an "emergency camp," where health and other services will be provided. He also said the International Organization for Migration will establish its own separate camps to shelter non-Syrians fleeing Syria on their way home or to third countries.
He said the decision to open the camps was taken in a Cabinet meeting late Monday. It followed an appeal last week from UNHCR's Harper, who called on the government to open a camp for Syrian refugees because the existing state-run housing compounds were overcrowded.
Jordan has hesitated to open tent or trailer camps for refugees so as not to damage ties with Syria, 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.
So far, refugees fleeing Syria's bloodshed have depended on help from friends, relatives and the Jordanian government. Families often share rooms in apartments or stay in houses with family or friends, mainly in towns along the border.
Also Tuesday, an Italian field hospital began operating in the border town of Mafraq. The €1 million ($1.2 million) facility will provide daily outpatient services and minor surgeries for at least 100 Syrian refugees and low-income local Jordanians.
Meanwhile, Jordan's Water Minister Mohammed Najjar said he has asked Western nations for donations to buy water for the refugees. Jordan suffers acute water shortages and has complained that the refugees were exhausting its limited resources.
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.