of

What More Can Cities Do for Afghan Refugees?

August 26, 2021
8 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
The collapse of the Afghan government and the return to power of the Taliban has left many individuals and families in danger, fearing for their freedom and their lives.

Governments have been scrambling to evacuate their citizens, embassy staff, troops and some locals who have been working with or supporting international presence in the country. At the same time, they are preparing “to ensure no wide-scale migratory move toward Europe.” In this volatile situation national leaders need to recognize that migration will remain an essential lifeline for those facing persecution in Afghanistan. As the Syrian civil war demonstrated, closing one’s eyes to this reality does not stop people from fleeing and will likely make it harder to find and communicate solutions in the long term. Acknowledging the urgent need for action, cities and mayors are raising their voices – where too many national governments are not. They are demanding humanitarian corridors for Afghan refugees, offering reception locations to their national governments, and are preparing local coalitions to host and support vulnerable people fleeing Afghanistan.

The city network EUROCITIES has collected some of European city commitments issued within the week. Other cities not yet on the list, including Marseille, Strasbourg, Lyon, Hamburg, Lisbon, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Rome, Geneva, and others have also voiced their support and willingness to welcome people fleeing Afghanistan. Across the Atlantic, many U.S. cities and states are doing the same. St. Louis City and St. Louis County are working together to welcome at least 1,000 Afghan citizens. Similarly, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are coordinating a community-based approach and will have resettlement staff waiting to assist Afghan refugees arriving at the airport. The Refugee Service of Texas is working with Austin, Dallas, and Houston to resettle refugees. Local officials from Baltimore, Kansas City, Denver, San Diego, Phoenix, and others have all made statements of support or announced they are preparing to resettle refugees from Afghanistan.

When local and regional governments take such clear stances to commit to internationally agreed obligations to protect refugees, they are exerting political pressure on national governments and pushing back on the often-repeated national narrative of scarce public or political willingness to welcome those fleeing persecution. By doing so they can also inspire other local authorities and stakeholders who might agree but have a higher barrier to making them public. Conversely, such actions don’t only exert political pressure, they may also relieve some of the pressure on national leaders by taking on some responsibility and accountability at the local level to preparing to welcome refugees with all the local dimensions that this requires (housing, education, employment, social services, health provision, etc.). Furthermore, joint approaches between national and local governments can enhance policy coherence and connect resettlement strategies with local integration. This is all the more important, given that many cities have developed extensive experience in including refugees in inclusive ways benefitting the community as a whole. Reminding the public and national leaders of these achievements is key to alleviating public and political fears.

Building on the action local and regional governments have taken so far, what more can local leaders do to collaborate with national counterparts, schools, and institutes of higher education, as well as the private sector to provide safety to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan?

Advocate for Humanitarian Corridors

In the short term, local and regional authorities that are vocal about their interest in supporting the creation of humanitarian corridors can provide a counterweight to more hesitant communication by national governments. The city of Vienna is a good example. Taking a stand against the national government’s rejection of new resettlement programs, the mayor of Vienna called upon the Austrian government to offer asylum to vulnerable persons and locally employed staff and declared that Vienna would be open to host refugees. To maximize visibility, local and regional governments should collaborate to publish joint statements. National city networks could take on coordination roles to bring together interested local and regional members to develop advocacy and enter into dialogue with the respective national authorities, as has been done by the members of the French National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories. Regional city networks such as Cities for Action in the U.S. or EUROCITIES in the EU could play similar roles to present local positions to federal and supranational authorities. At the international level, the Mayors Migration Council has prepared a joint statement that cities stand ready to “Welcome Afghan Refugees Now” and calling for national governments to work with cities to help expand pathways and provide humanitarian support to Afghan refugees fleeing persecution. Cities from around the world that share this message can still endorse this joint statement.

Coordinate Resettlement among Levels of Government

Engaging in multilevel dialogues is important in countries that have pledged to accept Afghan refugees both via ongoing or new resettlement programs. Too often, local authorities remain excluded from the implementation of resettlement programs, while it is at the local level that integration takes place in the long run. Following the announcement of resettlement places national governments, for instance, in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States (which have pledged quotas of refugees they will take in) should take the opportunity to collaborate more extensively with local or regional counterparts open to hosting Afghan refugees and these in turn should actively reach out and seek the dialogue with the national level.

Broaden Complementary Pathways

Only a small percentage of refugees worldwide reach safety through official resettlement schemes. That is why UN High Commissioner for Refugees focuses more and more on complementary pathways providing safe and regular routes to protection, for instance, via work visas, family reunification, and university scholarships. Local authorities can play key facilitator roles in these pathways. As employers, local authorities could partner with initiatives similar to Talent Beyond Boundaries to offer employment to Afghans in sectors where there are labor shortages. Local governments could of course also encourage private sector actors to do the same and offer them different forms of support and incentives; for instance, by providing short-term housing for foreign employees, offering language classes, advocating for tax deductions at the national level, or organizing public campaigns to inform the population about the social engagement of these companies. In Germany, a team around the Imagine Foundation, GoVolunteer and Jobs4Refugees has recently launched the TalentAirlift Initiative, offering companies the opportunity to connect with Afghan employees interested to apply for work abroad. Within hours over 130 companies signed up to state their interest. When it comes to young Afghans, women and men, universities can provide opportunities to start or continue higher education in safe third countries. An excellent example is provided by the World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program, which has created a partnership network including over 90 campuses across Canada. Institutes of higher education in other countries could strive to create similar networks that should not only include representatives from schools and universities but also representatives from the respective local and regional governments. Coordination between universities and authorities at local, regional, and national levels can ensure that housing, language classes, buddy programs, and recognition of certificates works smoothly.

Support Cities in Neighboring Regions

In the medium term, cities in Europe and North America could make use of the extensive experience in city-to-city collaboration developed over the last decades to create partnerships with cities in countries neighboring Afghanistan. The partnership between Zurich in Switzerland and Tyros in Lebanon, the peer-learning within the Mediterranean City-to-City Project of United Cities and Local Governments, UN-Habitat, and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, as well as the cooperation between cities in Germany, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan organized by the German Competence Centre for Local Development Cooperation show the various opportunities to support refugees. Within these cooperation projects cities have not only focused on the more obvious integration topics such as language learning or employment but did seize the opportunity to partner in developing solutions for water and waste management, the provision of housing, improving urban mobility, etc. While cities in different countries and world regions have different levels of financial resources, legal competences, and local capacity, city representatives often highlight that they nevertheless can learn from each other and may understand each other’s needs and opportunities better than national or international actors. What is more—they strive to move from exchange to action by formulating concrete projects and funding proposals to address local needs. A recent example of such a strategy can be found in the Project Prospectus published by the Mayors Migration Council and United Cities and Local Governments in the context of the Global Cities Fund. Prospectus presents local priority projects for an inclusive pandemic response and recovery in the form of concrete funding proposals that can be taken up by international donors and humanitarian and development actors interested in investing in impact-oriented locally led action. A similar initiative could be developed in the medium term to support cities hosting Afghan refugees in neighboring countries.

Build on Transnational City Engagement

Over the last years, many cities have grown more confident in their ability to bring valuable expertise into national and international debates on migration and displacement and in partnering with national and international partners to integrate refugees into urban societies. While just a few years ago, much city activism was driven by individual cities or international organizations, today, city organizations like the international Mayors Migration Council, the Mayors Mechanism, the European EUROCITIES and GMF’s transatlantic Cities Managing Migration are just some of many city initiatives working to coordinate, support, and advocate for city interests nationally, regionally, and internationally. In the next months and years, these networks and their city members are going to face challenges but also opportunities to build on solidarity-based collaboration to come to the aid of Afghan refugees.