Mayors Are Ready to Welcome Refugees. National Governments Need to Let Us | Opinion

As leaders of the world's 20 major economies prepare to meet next week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, they should consider the experiences and recommendations of mayors from around the world who are already taking decisive action to provide relief and safe haven to Afghan refugees fleeing their homes.

In the wake of the withdrawal of American forces and the Taliban's seizure of the country, the U.N. has indicated that up to half a million people could flee Afghanistan by year's end. This comes in addition to the 2.2 million Afghan refugees in bordering countries and 3.5 million who have been displaced within Afghanistan—one of the largest displacement crises in history.

The decades of war in Afghanistan are a tragedy. But while we cannot change the past, we can and must ensure that Afghan refugees find welcome homes with ample opportunities elsewhere in the world. To do that, national governments and international organizations need to work closely with the leaders of the places where the majority of refugees live, and where some of the most creative and inspiring resettlement projects are taking place: cities.

Cities of all sizes and from all corners of the world have already been stepping up in support of the Afghan people and are ready and willing to do more. As founders of the Mayors Migration Council, we mobilized more than 70 city leaders from around the world calling on national governments to open their doors to Afghan refugees and allow us to welcome them in our communities. In Bristol, U.K. we've already resettled six Afghan families and hope to welcome more, expanding the city's Resettlement Team that has supported more than 400 Syrian refugees over the past five years. In Kampala, Uganda, we've already been home to some 300,000 refugees for decades and can share our expertise with others.

The problem is that national governments, and the international donors that follow their lead, have not always been willing to work with us. The British government, for example, while committing to resettling 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, set this low number without discussing it with city leaders first. The same is true of the Ugandan government, which agreed to temporarily host up to 2,000 Afghans on their way to the U.S., without sharing information with local partners.

The stakes of getting refugee resettlement right go far beyond Afghanistan. As global pandemics become more common and climate change is estimated to displace up to 1 billion people by 2050, cities will continue to be on the front lines of receiving migrants and refugees. We have no time to spare: funders, national governments and cities need to work together to build a network of policies and structures that are resilient to the shocks that push people around our planet.

U.S. Military Police walk past Afghan refugees
U.S. Military Police walk past Afghan refugees at the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on Sept. 30, 2021, in Ft. McCoy, Wisc. Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

The good news is that cities are already preparing for these challenges.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Mayors Migration Council set up the Global Cities Fund to channel resources to cities for public health and social services to migrants, refugees and internally displaced people. Originally envisioned as a way to redirect international resources to cities at the forefront of COVID-19, the fund shows the effective, scalable and long-lasting responses cities can deliver with the right resources, whatever the challenge.

With support from the fund, Beirut, Lebanon opened its first Municipal Mobile Health Clinic to provide free COVID-19 testing to anyone unable to access basic medical services, including migrants and refugees. Freetown, Sierra Leone expanded its Waste Management Micro-Enterprise program, offering seed capital and training to entrepreneurial rural migrants to provide municipal waste management services across the city. And now Kampala, the newest grantee of the Global Cities Fund, will provide immediate cash support to migrants and refugees while helping them start or restart their businesses after COVID-19 lockdowns.

Cities can't solve all the world's problems, but we can play a crucial role in effectively managing crises in an age of global uncertainty. The Afghanistan crisis, while tragic, represents a window of opportunity to change the business as usual response. The right response to support Afghan refugees, led by cities, will not only help those in urgent need during this moment, but will allow cities to build communities that are more equitable, vibrant and resilient to the next shock.

Erias Lukwago is mayor of Kampala, Uganda and a founding leadership board member of the Mayors Migration Council.

Marvin Rees is mayor of Bristol, U.K. and founding leadership board member of the Mayors Migration Council.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.