Jan 31, 1:44 PM EST

Number of Syrian refugees on Jordan border reaches 20,000


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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- The number of Syrian refugees stranded on Jordan's border and waiting for permission to enter has risen to 20,000, with 4,000 to 5,000 more arriving in the remote desert area every month, the head of the U.N. refugee agency in the kingdom said Sunday.

In recent months, Jordan has permitted only several dozen refugees to enter each day, leading to rapidly growing crowds of Syrians, including women and children, who are stuck in two areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Jordanian authorities have cited security concerns for the bottle neck, saying many refugees come from areas controlled by the Islamic State group and need to undergo strict vetting. International aid officials have urged Jordan to speed up the process and move refugees quickly to the U.N.-run Azraq refugee camp which is still more than half empty and could house thousands of newcomers.

Andrew Harper, the refugee agency chief in Jordan, told The Associated Press on Sunday that he is working with Jordanian officials to provide the "most basic necessities" to refugees stuck in the desert. It's challenging because the nearest town is about 150 kilometers (more than 90 miles) away, Harper said. The U.N. understands the Jordanian security concerns, but is also working with local officials to try to expedite the vetting, he added.

Despite such efforts, the refugee agency is also preparing for the possibility of a continued rise in the number of refugees into the summer, at the current rate of 4,000 to 5,000 every month, Harper said.

Earlier Sunday, the head of Jordan's statistics department, Qasem al-Zoubi confirmed preliminary census results showing that 1.265 million Syrians live in the kingdom, or twice the number of registered Syrian refugees.

The figures were released ahead of next week's annual Syria aid conference where Jordan will seek a significant increase in international support to help it and other refugee host countries deal with the fallout from the five-year-old war.

In appealing for more aid, Jordanian officials usually cite the total number of Syrians in the country, including those who arrived before the outbreak of the 2011 Syria conflict, often in search of work. The United Nations has registered about 635,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan since 2011.

The census, conducted late last year, indicates that 9.5 million people live in Jordan, including 6.6 million Jordanians and 2.9 million non-citizens. Syrians make up the largest group of foreigners.

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