Urban Transformation

Afghan mayors and refugees are in danger. The world's cities mustn't fail them

Afghan refugees arrive in Dulles, Virginia.

Afghan refugees arrive in Dulles, Virginia. Image: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

Vittoria Zanuso
Executive Director, Mayors Migration Council
Naseer Ahmad Lilizai
Honorary Mayor, Global Parliament of Mayors
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International Security

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  • Afghan mayors and city officials from the previous regime remain at risk of reprisals from the Taliban.
  • The world's mayors have offered refuge to Afghan asylum seekers – but need enabling policies from governments.
  • Cities are uniquely placed to meet refugee needs.

As the US resumes evacuation of foreign nationals from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans remain trapped in the country – and must not be left behind. Among them are former mayors and city officials of Afghan cities pushed out of office by the Taliban regime and who are now facing threats.

More than 60 mayors from around the world – including Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Giuseppe Sala of Milan, Erias Lukwago of Kampala, Valerie Plante of Montreal and Marvin Rees of Bristol – recently issued a statement standing in solidarity with Afghans in need. They called on national governments to immediately open their doors to Afghan refugees, while encouraging the international community and donors to establish safe humanitarian corridors and provide aid to those in desperate need.

“As mayors representing cities across the globe, we stand ready to immediately welcome Afghan refugees in our communities,” the mayors wrote. “We call on our national governments and the international community to urgently work with the global network of city leaders and civil society to expand pathways and provide humanitarian support now.”

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With 70% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless persons already living in cities, mayors are experienced in building strong, diverse communities founded on welcoming and inclusion. While national governments deal with questions about borders and visa regimes, it is at the city level that the most immediate needs of refugees are addressed – from shelter, to medical care, to access to school and jobs. And it is at the city level that newcomers and receiving communities alike experience social and cultural inclusion.

Cities of all sizes and from all corners of the world are already stepping up in support of the Afghan people — from Fremont, California launching a city-run Afghan Refugee Help Fund to support those who will be resettled; to Bristol, UK working with property owners and landlords to provide housing to new arrivals; to Munich, Germany, where the city committed to welcome 260 or more Afghan refugees.

The leaders of these cities also stand in solidarity with the former Afghan mayors who are now in danger and demand that the international community show up for them. Afghan city leaders like Zarifa Ghafari – the country’s first female mayor until the Taliban seized power – were forced to flee after facing death threats. Many others are still in hiding and may not have the same fortune, especially now that local and international NGOs have stopped or slowed rescue operations.

Share of respondents who fear for their personal and their families safety and security these days in Afghanistan
Share of respondents who fear for their personal and their families safety and security these days in Afghanistan Image: Statista

As national governments and the UN negotiate access to Afghanistan with the Taliban, they must secure humanitarian corridors and resume evacuations so that at-risk Afghans can resettle in cities ready to welcome them. International actors must also continue to demand the Taliban respect the human rights of women and girls, working with the few local NGOs and international organizations still active in Afghanistan.

Learning from their experiences as first responders during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis among countless others, mayors understand the value that refugees bring to their cities. But they also know that they need enabling policy and financing environments in order to succeed, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to major budget shortages and lost revenue among city governments.

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How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

Alongside the Mayors Migration Council and the Global Parliament of Mayors, city leaders from all over the world are ready to welcome Afghan refugees and support those who are still in Afghanistan. It’s now time for national governments and donors to join them and do their part.

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Related topics:
Urban TransformationResilience, Peace and SecurityGeo-Economics and Politics
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