The Jordanian authorities have stalled for months on allowing journalists to visit the heavily guarded transit facilities in the north of the kingdom hosting Syrian refugees.
But with the growing number of Syrians crossing the border every night, the refugee crisis is no longer something the government can conceal. Jordan now needs all the international assistance it can get to feed and house the daily flood of refugees.
Al Jazeera was finally able to visit Al Bashabsheh compound, a five-building facility in the border town of Ramtha, and the first stop for illegal arrivals from Syria though the border fence.
It’s owned by a local businessman who’s given it to the refugees and the government as a charity.
The authorities keep the refugees at the facility for a few days while they run extensive background checks on them.
Most of the arrivals are vulnerable and support the opposition. That’s why there are growing fears of attempts by President Assad’s loyalists to enter the country and carry the conflict with the opposition onto Jordanian soil.
Last April, the authorities foiled an attempt by a Syrian national to poison Al Bashabsheh’s water supply. Sources say the string of arrests that followed suspected Syrian “spies”.
The security apparatus in northern Jordan is working around the clock to make sure incidents like these don’t happen and so-called spies do not infiltrate into the country.
But after the background checks are completed, the refugees are allowed to leave the holding facility if a Jordanian national signs a hefty financial guarantee (about $14,000) taking full responsibility for the refugee’s actions in the kingdom.
While Jordanians have welcomed Syrian relatives into their northern communities, some Syrians at Al Bashabsheh say they’ve been stuck at the facility for days because they do not know any Jordanians willing to make the commitment to vouch for their activities.
They prefer an arrangement where the government withholds their documents as a condition for releasing them. However, there’s a reason the government wants to involve the Jordanians in their release, and it stems from a security concern, and the need to keep tabs on all the activities of Syrians in the country.
Living conditions in Al Bashabsheh are not as bad as I expected. The refugees told me food is sufficient, so is medical care. Cleanliness is not ideal but depends most of the time on the personal hygiene of the refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are running the services of the camp.
The evident problem, though, is the fact that the facility is becoming so severely overcrowded, male newcomers are being housed in makeshift plastic tents, while the women and children are given rooms inside the compound if they’re available. The compound is housing over 1,500 refugees, and that’s over three times its capacity.
Regardless, the general feeling among the Syrians I spoke to is that safety and security are far more important than their living conditions at this point in time. All have not felt safe enough to sleep at night for months.
Now, the UNHCR and the Jordanian government are in talks over the opening of another emergency refugee camp to accommodate the daily flood of Syrians into the country.
We understand from officials that there are no plans to set up tents, rather, they prefer built structures to be used as temporary holding facilities like Al Bashabsheh.
The government is worried that opening camps would be misinterpreted by Damascus as providing support for revolutionaries, rather than just providing humanitarian support for vulnerable refugees.
Whether the government will end up opening proper camps or not, it appears Jordan is bracing itself for an even bigger refugee crisis, because it cannot change its open-border policy under international law.