Nation & World

Syrian refugee exodus to Jordan has slowed to trickle, U.N. says

The flow of refugees crossing from Syria into Jordan has all but stopped in the last six days amid heavy fighting in the area and claims by Syrians that Jordanian border guards are preventing them from entering.

The Jordanian foreign minister has denied that his government had closed the border, but Syrians said Jordanian soldiers had turned them back.

A decision by the Jordanian government to block the flow of people across the border not only would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in Syria – thousands had been fleeing into Jordan every day, seeking refuge from the civil war there – but also would complicate efforts to supply the rebel groups that are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“When we asked the border guards why they won’t let us in, they gave no reason,” said Abu Mohammed, a Syrian rebel who used a nom de guerre that means “Father of Mohammed” in Arabic. He makes regular trips to Jordan in order to ferry weapons and other supplies into Syria and take refugees and the wounded out.

As has happened on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, the Jordanian government has been allowing fighters, supplies and refugees to pass in and out of Syria through unofficial crossings into rebel-held areas. These unofficial crossing points are crucial to the rebellion.

“This is something from the Jordanian government. We don’t know why they are doing this,” Abu Mohammed said.

International aid agencies in Jordan are more cautious about the reasons for the drop, but they confirmed that no new refugees arrived Wednesday or Thursday at the Zaatari camp, a sprawling tent and trailer complex in Jordan’s northern desert that’s home to as many as 150,000 Syrians who’ve fled the violence in their country.

Jordan has been overwhelmed by the influx. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the organization’s primary refugee agency, has registered more than 400,000 Syrians in need of assistance in Jordan, and it says nearly 100,000 more are awaiting registration. In all, UNHCR has identified more than 1.5 million Syrians who’ve fled the country and are in need of assistance, and it estimates that another 6.5 million are displaced inside the country, meaning that more than a third of Syria’s approximately 22 million people have been displaced, some of them multiple times.

“We’re in close collaboration with the government to try to see what the reason is, and we will continue to do so,” said Tala Kattan, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Jordan.

Qattan said the drop-off began Sunday, and that only 13 people had crossed from Sunday to Tuesday. That was a sharp decrease from the 500 who’d crossed Saturday, and far less than the influx of 1,000 to 2,000 daily that she said was the average.

A Jordanian who coordinates medical aid with rebels and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons said the drop-off coincided with a Syrian government offensive in the south.

“The entire area in front of Turrah and Ramtha was bombarded with heavy cannon fire and rockets,” he said, mentioning two Jordanian towns near the Syrian border. “Tuesday was the worst, but Wednesday it calmed down a bit.”

“They’ve been attacking steadily,” he said, referring to Syrian government forces. “Two shells even landed in Turrah.”

The reports of heavy fighting in southern Syria come amid a government offensive on multiple fronts that appears to be an effort to regain territory lost to the rebels in the past year. Pro-Assad forces also are besieging the city of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon and have retaken several towns and villages on the outskirts of Damascus recently as well.

The Jordanian government generally has kept its border with Syria open during the fighting, despite the strain the refugees have put on Jordan’s ability to accommodate them. Jordan’s population of about 6 million is already impoverished and lacking resources, and the government has complained bitterly about the lack of international support for the refugees. UNHCR says it has a more than $300 million shortfall in its budget.

Jordan, whose population is made up partially of Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Israeli-Arab war in 1967, closed its borders to Iraqi refugees in 2005.

The slowing in the refugee influx coincided with a visit to Jordan by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met there Wednesday with rebel leaders and representatives of other countries that have provided backing for the rebels. Some analysts suggested the Jordanian government may have seen halting the refugee flow as a way to pressure those countries for greater assistance.

McClatchy special correspondent Nabih Boulos contributed to this report from Jordan.