ZAATARI, Jordan: A wave of 21,000 Syrian refugees in the past week, moving into northern Jordan at about five times the usual daily rate, has overwhelmed this crowded camp already struggling with flooding, short supplies and tent fires.
As newly arrived refugees unpacked Monday, one family’s tent went up in flames after kerosene spewed onto a nearby heater, incinerating the family’s meager possessions. In a sign of frustration, some refugees pelted a fire truck with stones, cracking its windshield, saying the firefighters were slow to respond.
“Almost every day, one or two tents catch fire,” said 22-year-old Abu Anis, who like most refugees interviewed at the camp declined to give his real name because he feared retaliation against relatives still living in Syria. “Thank God, other people haven’t been hurt because the tents are so close together.”
The United Nations said the huge influx during the past week was larger than anticipated and left its agencies, already suffering from a funding shortfall, reeling.
The U.N. says it hopes a donor conference for Syrian refugees Wednesday in Kuwait will rectify the dire funding situation.
The UNICEF representative to Jordan, Dominque Hyde, said more than 21,000 Syrians arrived at Jordan’s sole refugee camp just in the past week.
“We were expecting larger numbers in the new year, but not the 3,000 a day that have been coming across to Zaatari camp,” she said.
New arrivals – most of them coming from southern Syria where fighting has been intense – were crossing into Jordan at about five times the rate anticipated, according to Andrew Harper of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan. Until recently, an average of 700 refugees arrived at the desert facility each day.
International donors have pledged less than 3 percent of a $1 billion U.N. appeal made last month to aid the more than 670,000 Syrian refugees estimated to have fled to surrounding countries during the 22-month uprising to topple President Bashar Assad.
Harper said the Jordanian government had done what it could to provide protection to the 320,000 Syrian refugees it now hosts, but it could not continue to bear the strain. About one-fifth of the refugees live in the camp, while the rest shelter in mainly northern communities.
UNICEF’s Hyde described the sharp increase in refugees as “daunting.”
“You can see that many children at Zaatari – called the ‘kids’ camp’ because they make up the greatest numbers here ... don’t have socks or even shoes in the dead of winter,” she said as children played on swings and slides nearby.
Hyde said 24,000 Syrian refugee children entered Jordan in the past month alone – the highest number ever.
“This means that we need to be building a new school immediately,” she said, expressing hope that a new one could be constructed by mid-February.
Classes are set to resume at the existing school on Feb. 5, but desperate refugees moved in earlier this month because howling winter winds blew their tents down while others were flooded. They say they are still awaiting alternative accommodations. Other camp residents have started jokingly describing the school as “occupied territory.”
Abu Walid, 46, from the town of Deraa, said that as much as he and the other refugees need the aid, what they really want is an end to nightmarish killing, rape and shelling back home. His 16-year-old son was killed in Syria by shrapnel from artillery tank fire as he walked home from work.
“We want this awful crisis to end and to return home,” said the slender man, a wool scarf tied around his neck to ward off the cold.
“The world is sleeping. It’s failing us ... How can it continue to turn its back on us every day as more and more are killed inside Syria?”