The growing tide of Syrian refugees poses the biggest immediate challenge. There have been accounts in Jordan of border violence, and Jordanian officials say Syrian forces in several cases have shot refugees as they crossed into Jordan — including, recently, a 6-year-old boy who later died. Sometimes refugees have been shot when they were well inside Jordanian territory. Abdullah told CBS that Jordanians have occasionally fired back at the Syrians. He did not elaborate.
Jordan has had an open-door policy for Syrian refugees since they began trickling in last year. About 300 to 1,000 people now cross the border nightly, most with the help of Syrian rebels.
Trade and family ties span the frontier, and the majority have easily found shelter with relatives or friends in Jordanian cities. Syrian activists have mostly praise for Jordanian hospitality.
Until recently, Jordan appeared reluctant to open a refugee camp. But officials and analysts said the swelling population is taxing the country’s weak supplies of water, fuel and power, as well as its job market. Mounting security concerns require stricter vetting of migrants and their movements, they said.
“Since the beginning, Jordan has taken a humane role toward the refugees,” Maaytah said. “But it has been a burden economically, security-wise and politically.”
All refugees are now bused to the dusty Mafraq site, where the population is approaching 6,000. On a recent day, Andrew Harper, the Jordan representative for the United Nations refugee agency, exhorted a group of Arab diplomats who were touring the site to donate. “You can see the misery. You can see the needs,” he said.
There is the potential for “a real crisis,” said a U.S. intelligence official who has tracked the refugee flow and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence reports from the region. “The country is starting to drown in refugees.”
Some analysts said that flow could provide cover for Syrian spies or armed activists, though Maaytah said Jordanian security services are confident that they can identify such actors. Omar Abdullah, a Syrian anti-regime activist in Amman, said that “smuggling weapons is a red line. They do not allow anyone to cross it.”
But stories about the presence of Syrian regime agents are circulating. In the border city of Ramtha, where cars piled with produce still rumble in each morning from Syria, Jordanian businessman Thaer al-Bashabsheh said he thinks he was a target.
His family, wealthy traders who long did business in Syria, funded and operated a prominent unofficial refugee camp in Ramtha until the official camp opened. Last month, Bashabsheh found a satellite receiver under a family car. A Jordanian bomb squad, he said, determined that it was loaded with explosives.
“We have no enemies in Jordan. The only thing we are doing is helping our brothers from Syria. So I am the enemy for Assad,” he said.
At a house in Ramtha, a Syrian schoolteacher, his wife and four children are biding their time, surviving on the charity of relatives. Two weeks ago, they escaped intense Syrian shelling in their village near the city of Daraa. Then they fled the refugee camp in Jordan, which they said was too grim.
At least the children can sleep now, said the mother, who asked to be identified by her traditional name, Um Rifaat, to avoid endangering relatives in Syria. But she said her only wish is to spend the coming Eid holiday in Syria — a Syria that is no longer led by Assad. If Syrians stay too long in Jordan, said Um Rifaat, 37, “we will become a burden.”
Warrick reported from Washington.