Ed note. This is a special guest post from a UN Dispatch reader, who will remain anonymous.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria that caused a global uproar last week took place in an area about three to four kilometers from where about 1,000 Afghan refugees are trapped since the beginning of the conflict.
A report, published by BBC Persian on August 29, highlights the dire conditions of the Afghan refugees, most of them widows, children, people with disabilities or the elderly. It raises troubling questions about the safety of such a vulnerable population and the failure of the international community and the Afghan government to relocate them to safer areas two years into the bloody conflict that took a particularly nasty turn after the use of the chemicals.
The Afghans are mostly Shia Muslims and have been coming to Syria for generations to perform pilgrimage of sacred Shiite sites; some also came to Syria to escape persecution in their homeland, only to find themselves in the middle of another conflict. Most of the Afghans have fled Syria after violence broke out two years ago, but about one thousand remain trapped, citing a lack of proper documents and the refusal of regional countries such as Lebanon to take them in as refugees.
They live in makeshift housing in the Syeda Zainab area of Damascus after they were forcibly evicted from their homes by rebel forces several months ago. The Afghans have sustained casualties from the violence – several have been killed and injured, and a few have been taken by rebel forces without a trace.
The sectarian nature of the conflict means the mostly Shiite Afghans are viewed as regime sympathizers by the rebels, but their Asiatic features make them suspicious to the regime soldiers who often fail to recognize their UNHCR-issued refugee documents.
The Afghans not only do not enjoy the protection of either side, they are in fact vulnerable to harm from both.
Relocating them to safety is the only option, but one that has not yet materialized. Some of the Afghans trapped in Damascus say they have been waiting for UNHCR to process their relocation claims for two years or more.
The Afghan government does not have an embassy in Syria, but the refugees say the embassy in Turkey has not offered any assistance. The Afghan government in Kabul also has not announced a particular plan to safeguard the Afghans in Syria.