AMMAN: Jordan will prevent a mass exodus of Syrian refugees from entering its territory if President Bashar Assad’s regime collapses, and will instead create a safe haven inside Syria to protect them, Jordan’s prime minister said Thursday.
The news came as Amman and the United Nations struggle to cope with a funding shortfall to care for the refugees, who endured yet another tragedy this week when seven members of a family were killed in a fire.
Abdullah Ensour’s remarks reflect widely held concerns in Jordan, which is already hosting 285,000 Syrian refugees and has exhausted its meager health care, education, water and energy resources.
Jordan is also anxious that the lawlessness and street chaos that could follow Assad’s collapse would spill over Syria’s southern border into the kingdom – a traditionally quiet country with a prided security record in the volatile Mideast.
“If the regime collapses and there is another exodus of refugees, we will stop them and keep them in their country,” Ensour told reporters in his office. However, his aides said Jordan had not yet decided and it was unlikely to close its northern border to block refugees.
Ensour said that rather than taking in another exodus, Jordan would dispatch special forces to “secure safe havens for the Syrians inside their country.”
“We do not encourage our Syrian brothers to come to Jordan because their country needs them more and they should remain there,” he added.
Ensour did not say whether he thought Assad would fall or not, but said Jordan had “no contacts” with his regime in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, debt-ridden Jordan and the U.N. are complaining that low funds are hindering efforts to aid the refugees, hoping a donor meeting this month will be generous.
The misery of more than 60,000 Syrians at the Zaatari refugee camp was deepened last week when the worst winter storm in a decade turned their temporary residence in the north into a muddy swamp, knocking down at least 500 tents in freezing temperatures.
After the storm, local Facebook activists accused Amman of not doing enough for the refugees, demanding the closure of the 7-square-kilometer Zaatari facility near the border.
“Together, let’s shut down the Zaatari camp and move it to a location that is suitable for living,” said a 8,350-member group on Facebook calling itself “Let’s Cooperate,” which regularly posts videos and pictures of camp refugees.
But U.N. and Jordanian officials brushed aside the criticism, saying the problem was not the location but the fact that the refugee crisis was stretching Jordan’s limited resources. It is facing a $5-billion budget deficit, while still awaiting aid promised to the refugees.
“I think rather than criticizing the Jordanian government ... the important thing is to ask the international community why they are not doing more to help ... provide protection for refugees,” said Andrew Harper, representative of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Jordan.
The country of nearly 7 million people, which appealed in September for $700 million in international aid for 2012, says it is hosting more than 60,000 refugees in the camp and around 260,000 in cities and urban areas who survive either on charity handouts or on their own resources. Some 176,000 of them are U.N.-registered.
UNHCR’s Harper urged a donor conference that will be held in Kuwait on Jan. 30 to put forward “a sustainable” aid program.
“What we expect is a recognition of the enormous needs existing in Jordan and appreciation of what Jordan and neighboring countries have done to assist and protect refugees,” Harper told AFP.
He called for “putting a sustainable program of assistance for those people displaced inside and outside Syria until such time that these people can return home.”
“We have already appealed for around $500 million [for 2013] to help Jordan cope with the refugees,” the representative said.
Nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon, more than 153,000 in Turkey, 69,300 in Iraq, 13,000 in Egypt and upward of 5,000 in North Africa, according to the United Nations, which expects their number to rise to 1.1 million by June if the war continues.
Lebanon, which called in early December for $363 million to cope with the influx, decided earlier this month to keep its border with Syria open to refugees but also to seek more international aid.
“The international community has promised Jordan aid for the Syrian refugees, but the majority of promises have not been kept,” Anmar Hmud, government spokesman for Syrian refugee issues, told AFP in Amman.
“We urge donors to meet their commitments and support Jordan. Help us help our Syrian brothers,” said Hmud.
He added that the kingdom, which has given refuge to waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees because of regional conflicts over the past decades, provided free health and education services for U.N.-registered refugees.
Saudi Arabia has said it would dispatch aid worth $10 million to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, while Bahrain has announced it was sending 500 caravans to replace tents in the Zaatari camp.
“Jordan needs help to meet the needs of the Syrian refugees as the country is already suffering from economic problems,” Rima Fleihan, a member of Syria’s main opposition body the National Coalition, told AFP.
“It is a humanitarian crisis that needs international cooperation. Countries that support the Syrian people should be committed to provide aid to the refugees.”
Separately, angry refugees were joined by Jordanians in the border town of Ramtha, where they buried seven members of a family who perished after a fire destroyed their tent at the King Hussein Gardens.
A kerosene heating unit accidentally flipped over, spreading kerosene on the ground and causing a huge blaze, said Col. Farid Sharaa.
“The fire spread quickly to floor mattresses, where the refugee family was sleeping, killing all its members,” Sharaa said in a written statement. He said four others from a different family were hospitalized with burns.
Police said there was no immediate information on the identity of those who were killed and whether any relatives survived.
Sharaa said the kerosene heaters were used in caravans in the King Hussein Gardens in Ramtha, a temporary shelter for refugees as their identity is being established before being relocated. Several refugee families share each caravan as sleeping quarters.