MAFRAQ, Jordan (AP) — The path out of Syria first led to safe houses near the Jordanian border so crowded there was barely room to sleep. Then, during a lull in the fighting last week, Syrian rebels began to smuggle out civilians — hundreds at a time — within range of snipers from Bashar Assad’s regime.

“We were told not to turn on our mobile phones or smoke,” said a 25-year-old woman who was among more than 3,600 Syrians whose exodus this month has strained humanitarian resources in Jordan and suggested a new refugee pipeline emerging across the dry hills of southern Syria.

The woman, who gave her name only as Umm Ahmed, or Mother of Ahmed, is now searching for a place to live as other families move into a hastily opened trailer camp. Meanwhile, crews rush to open a UN-sponsored tent city in anticipation of more refugees from Syria’s violence that activists say has claimed up to 17,000 lives.

For more than a year, Jordan has quietly absorbed more than 140,000 displaced Syrians who have been relocated in vacant housing or taken in by clans that straddle the border. Similar resettlement efforts in Lebanon contrast with the highly guarded tent camps in Turkey for the fleeing Syrians.

But now Jordan’s housing stock is nearly maxed out and authorities — caught off guard by the recent surge — are racing to make room for the new arrivals and possibly more over escape routes carved out by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

“We had to move quickly,” said Jordan’s Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah.

Jordanian officials, the United Nations’ refugee agency and UNICEF are working to complete a camp for 5,000 people near Mafraq, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of the capital Amman. The site — on a patch of desert dotted by cones of whirling dust — could eventually be expanded to accommodate 130,000 refugees, the U.N. says.

“Camps have to be opened because there is no more room for Syrians in these towns where they first took shelter,” said Khaled Ghanem, an aid worker with the Islamic Charity Center Society as it opened a refugee medical clinic for dental and gynecological services.

“The numbers,” he added, “are beyond our capacity.”

Andrew Harper, the Jordan representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the recent spike in refugees followed a flare up in clashes around Daraa, a city near the Jordanian border where the uprising against Assad’s regime began in March 2011. “We were getting up to 1,000 plus people a night,” he said, describing the height of the exodus last week during a break in the violence.

“We are putting in the necessary infrastructure so that — if there is an influx — people can be accommodated there immediately,” he told reporters. Communities now housing Syrians are at “breaking point,” he added.

“There are only so many schools, health clinics which can absorb the needs of the Jordanian population, let alone having to deal with tens of thousands of more Syrians,” Harper noted.

The aid worker Ghanem surveyed a once-abandoned hovel shared by two Syrian families of 16 people. Brown burlap rice bags and flattened cardboard boxes serve as a partial roof over one part of the building. Wood from flimsy crates make up the front door.

“There is no sewage,” he said. The families spent three days cleaning out the dust and dirt to make it somewhat habitable and the charity brought in electricity and bolstered the wall.

“All I have to offer the refugees now are 10 other ramshackle places just like this,” he said.

Abu Khaled, 59, a butcher, burst into tears as he described living in the stable-like conditions after fleeing his hometown of Homs in northern Syria, where his brother was killed.

“Those with the regime stole everything I owned. I have nothing left,” he said, using just the name meaning Father of Khaled for fear of reprisals from Syrian authorities. “We’re here temporarily. We’re hoping things will get better, so we can go somewhere else.”

Health Minister Abdul-Latif Wreikat believes the cost of providing health services to displaced Syrians this year will reach $42.3 million — which will only rise as more Syrians cross the border. It follows years of economic drain to aid tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees, who only recently started to trickle home.

The Syrian refugee issue also poses a delicate diplomatic balance for Jordan. For months, the kingdom has been reluctant to set up refugee camps to avoid angering the Assad regime. Syria is also one of Jordan’s main trading partners.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has condemned the violence, even urging Assad to step down “if I was in his shoes.” But he has toned down the criticism a bit and appeals for a diplomatic solution to the crisis without providing any details.

Jordanian authorities also have been concerned about Assad supporters trying to infiltrate the detention center and other facilities. Earlier this year, there was an account of police arresting a so-called “spy” for allegedly trying to poison the water supply at the one of the holding centers for incoming refugees.

Abu Mohammed, a 46-year-old builder from Homs, said he and his four children fled to Jordan after their home was shelled and his wife killed by a sniper’s bullet as she looked to buy milk for their 4-year-old boy. Last week, he said he crossed with a group of nearly 1,000 people shepherded by rebel fighters.

“I actually felt safe during the crossing because the rebel army was protecting us,” he said. “The fighters moved between the trees and surveyed the area, helping us to arrive safely on the other side.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.