Aid agencies continue to call on Jordan to let in thousands Syrians they say have amassed in a remote desert area on the country's border, as the kingdom's rebuffed the U.N figure of 12,000 stranded refugees.
Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said late Tuesday that "the number is exaggerated," but did not give an alternative figure. He did, however, acknowledge delays in allowing in those fleeing Syria's nearly five-year war, attributing them to "security" considerations.
The U.N. refugee agency says the number of refugees stranded on the border tripled to 12,000 since November because of intensifying fighting in Syria. It has appealed to Jordan to allow them to enter, saying lives are at risk.
Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the kingdom to let the refugees in.
"Jordan should stop stranding people in remote border areas for months on end and swiftly screen them in the country’s well-established transit centers," Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of HRW, said in the statement.
The UNHCR has warned that the lives of the stranded refugees will be at risk in coming winter months if they are not admitted to Jordan and receive substantial assistance.
Momani says that "our borders are open for refugees" and that "we take care of humanitarian cases, particularly children and women."
After the start of the Syrian conflict, Jordan took in large numbers of refugees who flooded across the border. Today, Jordan hosts about 630,000 of more than 4 million Syrians who have fled their homeland since 2011.
Since 2013, Jordan has tightened border controls. In recent months, Jordan has permitted entry to small groups at a time, typically several dozen a day, citing the need for stringent security checks to weed out potential fighters alligned with armed groups.
"It is the sovereign right of the kingdom to be meticulous and to take security measures" when screening refugees arriving from Syria to ensure that no people aligned with ISIL, or other such groups, try to slip in, Momani said.
With Tuesday's comments, the U.N. refugee agency made a rare public appeal to Jordan to change its policy, while acknowledging the country's "tremendous contribution" to hosting refugees. It marked the first time the agency said publicly how many refugees it believes are stuck at the berm for months at a time.
Amnesty International echoed the UNHCR appeal.
"Testimony from Syrian refugees and international aid workers in Jordan ... suggests that hundreds of refugees have been arriving on a daily basis in recent weeks but have been denied access to Jordan by the authorities," Amnesty said.
Amnesty urged Amman to take "immediate action" to assist them, saying failure to provide refugees with sanctuary could fuel a "humanitarian disaster."
Separately, HRW said recent satellite images indicate thousands of people are gathered in the area. The group said the images show more than 1,450 tent structures, compared to 175 in April.
UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the situation is deteriorating.
She said women have given birth at the berm in unsanitary conditions, and that there are increasing signs of diarrhea and malnutrition among children.