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Global coalition of mayors calls for support for Afghan refugees

The Hill logo The Hill 8/26/2021 Rafael Bernal
a man walking down the street: Children ride a bike in Afghanistan © Provided by The Hill Children ride a bike in Afghanistan

A group of more than 50 mayors from cities around the world on Thursday called on their national governments to expand pathways for Afghan refugees to seek safety amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

The mayors include those of more than a dozen U.S. cities, ranging from large metropolises like New York, Los Angeles and Houston, to mid-sized cities like Oakland, Calif., Seattle and Buffalo, N.Y.

They joined with mayors from 15 other countries to sign a statement coordinated by the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), a grouping of global local executives that focuses on helping cities better manage migration.

In the joint statement, the mayors ask national governments to expand legal pathways for Afghans to migrate, support evacuations, decriminalize the journey of Afghan refugees, stop forcibly returning Afghans to their home country, and coordination and funding for cities to welcome refugees.

Mayors from Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Nepal, The Netherlands, Palestine, Portugal, Scotland, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States joined the effort.

The request comes as several countries - most notably the United States - are grappling with the sudden takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the logistical challenges of evacuating foreign nationals and Afghan allies.

According to Vittoria Zanuso, the executive director of MMC, different mayors have varying incentives to pressure national governments to expand and protect refugee and asylum programs.


Video: Afghan refugees arrive in the U.S. (CNBC)

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"When it comes to refugee resettlement and refugee welcoming, there's a lot of smaller cities, let's think about for example the Rust Belt cities in the U.S., that they are facing issues of aging population or having to reinvent themselves, and actually having this new injection of people, of young people, can really help them in their development goals," said Zanuso.

"Then we have other cities that are larger and they are more interested in other dimensions that are a bit more political, so incentives are different," she added.

In most political systems, local governments have relatively little say over migratory policy, including refugee resettlement, but about 70 percent of refugees, asylees and internally displaced persons end up settling in urban areas.

"While it's perfectly normal and fine for national governments to deal with questions of borders, visa regimes and things like that, it is at the city level that most immediate needs are tactically addressed, whether that's shelter, medical care, access to schools and jobs. These are things that mayors oftentimes deal with directly, and so they are the ones that actually know how they work operationally," said Zanuso.

Still, Afghanistan is a country of nearly 40 million people, and although nearly 10 percent of its population has fled in the past two decades, a majority of Afghans will live under Taliban rule for the time being.

The MMC letter also calls on national governments, nongovernmental organizations and mayors themselves to provide funds and build programs to protect Afghans who remain in-country and are at risk.

That element of the request was heightened Thursday, as a series of bombings rocked the vicinity of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport amid U.S.-led evacuation proceedings.

The attacks killed "a number" of U.S. service members, the first to die in theater since President Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Zanuso said MMC is working to assist NGOs and local groups to continue humanitarian work, as well as to protect former Afghan mayors who were removed by the Taliban.

"There's something to this story that's not just about mayors welcoming refugees, but it's also about mayors standing in solidarity with former mayors of Afghanistan that now are in danger," said Zanuso.

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