ZATAARI, Jordan (AP) — Jordan opened on Sunday its first tent camp for Syrians fleeing violence in their country, as government officials said a surge of refugees left them no other choice.
Authorities had been reluctant to set up the camp, possibly to avoid angering Syrian President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime by concentrating images of civilians fleeing his military onslaught.
But with 142,000 Syrians seeking refuge in their southern neighbor and the figure growing daily by up to 2,000, Jordanian authorities said they simply had to act.
"Reality has pushed us to open this camp," Interior Minister Ghaleb Zoubi told a gathering of aid officials during the camp's opening in the hamlet of Zataari, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the Syrian border.
"We've hosted Syrians in our homes, in even larger numbers than where they have been housed in holding centers," he said. "This has created a pressure on Jordan, especially given the water and electricity shortages we face."
Jordan is one of the world's ten poorest countries in terms of water resources, and its electricity supplies have been sharply curbed due to militant bombings of a natural gas pipeline from Egypt that supplies power plants.
Feeling the weight of fresh refugees, Amman has made an appeal to the international community to help shoulder the refugee burden by providing financial assistance.
While the country has opened its schools and hospitals to care for the Syrians, it also continues to host hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
Later on Sunday, about 600 refugees will be admitted to the camp after they break the fast they are following for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, UNHCR representative Andrew Harper said.
Neither Jordan nor the U.N. originally wanted to erect the tent camp in the desert under the summer heat during Ramadan, Harper said, acknowledging however that the crisis had left them with no other option.
"We've got no choice. Jordanian communities are overwhelmed with Syrians," he said, adding that transit facilities in the country designed to host 2,000 people were now brimming with five times that number.
The new camp will initially host 5,000 refugees.
So far, the international community has shown only a tepid response to a U.N. appeal in March for $84 million for Syrian refugees in the region.
Only one-third of that amount has been pledged. Outlays for the Zataari camp, whose 2,000 white tents alone cost $1 million, were not included in the appeal.
While food, water, electricity and other amenities will also be provided, Harper said Zataari illustrated just how dire the crisis in Syria has become.
"If people want a tent in the desert, then they are really fleeing something desperate," he said.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh called the ongoing bloodshed in neighboring Syria "a serious predicament," adding that his country was committed to helping the victims despite its meager resources.
He also highlighted the plight of Syrians who have made the dash across the border to Jordan.
"They are crossing through barbed-wire, sometimes being shot at, while escaping tragedy and horrific realities on the ground."
Late last Thursday, Jordanian authorities reported that the Syrian army shot dead a six-year-old Syrian boy while firing at his parents and a dozen other refugees as they tried to cross the border fence.
Other reports of Syrians wounded by their own army when fleeing the frontier have also surfaced in Jordanian media.
The U.N.'s Harper said the tent city could be eventually expanded to hold more than 100,000 people, but that plans are needed for all eventualities.
"If this fills up, we're in deep trouble... That's a lot of people and represents a huge tragedy for Syria."