AMMAN/RAMTHA — Jordan on Wednesday closed its first unofficial Syrian refugee camp, marking a new era in the country’s approach to a brewing humanitarian crisis.
The so-called Bashabsheh transit facility — a cluster of apartment buildings in the border city of Ramtha that for over a year served as the first stop-off for thousands of Syrians entering the country — was officially shuttered on Wednesday after the last busload of its “temporary” residents departed.
The closure was the first step in phasing out the use of the transit facilities that housed Syrians as they underwent security checks, which officials claim are no longer able to cope with a refugee influx that has reached some 1,500 persons per day.
“Bashabsheh and other transit facilities have served their purposes, but now we have new needs and we have facilities that are better able to meet these needs,” said Andrew Harper, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Jordan.
Under the new policy, all Syrians entering Jordan will be transferred to the Zaatari Camp, a collection of some 2,000 tents near Mafraq opened by the government on Sunday as the country’s first official Syrian refugee camp.
Authorities began transporting new arrivals to Zaatari late Wednesday, Harper said, and are set to transfer Syrians from the remaining transit centres to the refugee camp in a bid to close the facilities by the end of the month. More than an administrative move, officials say the closure marks a new era in Jordan's response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“Bashabsheh’s closure and the opening of the new camp is the Jordanian government’s official acknowledgement that the Syrian refugee crisis may last years,” said a UN source who preferred to remain unnamed.
Local residents say the new phase marks a “separation” between Jordanians and Syrians, who, since the onset of the crisis, have lived and worked together as “one community” in the northern border region.
Mohammed Khazaileh, who opened a makeshift supermarket out of his home across from the Bashabsheh complex, said Syrians have become a “core segment” of the social fabric in the area.
“You could no longer point out who is Syrian and who is Jordanian, who is from Daraa and who is from Ramtha,” said the 45-year-old.
“We truly have become one people.”
Officials say the new reliance on the Zaatari camp is related to a growing realisation that as the Syrian conflict drags on, the 140,000-strong refugee community poses an increasing security risk, fears that were exacerbated by clashes that broke out between refugees and Ramtha residents at Bashabsheh last month.
“For a long time we tried to keep a balance of allowing Syrians to live normal lives while maintaining security,” said an official source.
“Unfortunately we arrived at a point where we could no longer guarantee the safety of refugees or local residents.”
As part of the new phase, the interior ministry this week suspended a procedure under which Syrians could leave transit facilities and move freely within the Kingdom if they secured a financial guarantee signed by a Jordanian.
UN sources and security officials say Zaatari will be a “closed camp”, which residents will be unable to leave without a security permission and escort.
With work already under way to establish Jordan’s second refugee camp and displaced Syrians continuing to cross over in the thousands, relief officials say that although the transit facilities’ closure marked the end of a chapter in Amman’s humanitarian relief efforts, the story remains far from over.
“We are preparing for anything that might come,” Harper said.