How local leaders shape refugee protection
Alise Coen explores the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and how local politics affected the treatment of refugees
In the aftermath of the withdrawal of international forces and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the humanitarian and security situation in the country remains dire. Human rights groups have documented unlawful targeted killings and torture of people perceived as enemies of the Taliban, and there have been reports of raids, threats of severe ‘punishment’ and pledges of ‘revenge’ against those who worked with the US and NATO. In this piece I explore how obligations to protect Afghans facing such threats are interpreted, applied and challenged in US domestic politics. I explain how global norms and liberal international principles around duties to care for refugees and foreign civilians facing persecution are ‘localized’ by national, state and municipal leaders. I also discuss how domestic authorities resist such principles and undermine access to humanitarian migration. Activists and policy-makers need to recognize the extent to which local authorities shape the realities of refugee protection.
Framing political debate
In the months following the Taliban takeover, the US evacuated and resettled over 76,000 Afghans — many of whom had served US and NATO personnel as wartime interpreters and other locally employed civilians. In examining how US policy-makers made sense of responsibilities towards these evacuees, I reiterate the importance of narratives within international affairs. Groups are deemed threatening or worthy of protecting on the basis of how they are presented, ‘named’ and described. Domestic political narratives shape the terms on which countries contribute to or pull back from global responsibility-sharing.
When members of Congress, mayors, governors and state legislators portrayed Afghans in need of evacuation and resettlement as ‘refugees’, ‘allies’, people who are ‘fleeing persecution’ and who ‘risked their lives’ for US military personnel, they helped propel justifications for mobilizing local resources and support. When they stressed the foreignness of Afghans as inhabitants of ‘a dangerous part of the world’ and depicted them as people who ‘do not share our culture’, they bolstered nativist resistance. At stake in these representations were the definition, scope and nature of the problem. Did the Taliban takeover produce a ‘refugee crisis’ endangering ‘vulnerable’ and ‘brave’ people who had loyally served the US and NATO? Or did it create a ‘flood’ of ‘fighting age men’ who might be ‘possible terrorists’? Domestic leaders play crucial roles in determining how these questions are answered.
In addition to shaping the parameters of policy debate, domestic leaders can impact how global human rights principles are implemented, contested and adapted locally. Many US officials blurred legal distinctions between classifications of migrants arriving from Afghanistan (e.g. refugees, parolees, Special Immigrant Visa applicants) to affirm the core norm that obligations are owed to people fleeing persecution. Many, however, also linked this moral duty to the ‘ally’ status of Afghans fleeing persecution in ways that suggested protection might be conditional on prior service and loyalty to the United States. In directing state and municipal services towards resettlement support for Afghan arrivals, some governors and mayors fused images of them as ‘refugees’ and people who ‘fought alongside us’. To ‘earn’ safe harbour, Afghans needed to prove their fidelity through having ‘supported American service members’ or having otherwise jeopardized their safety in service of NATO operations.
Such interpretations distort refugee protection norms, adding to the ambiguities characterizing the international refugee regime. They highlight the power of local officials in shaping how refugee protection is understood and applied.
Resisting refugees as resisting ‘globalism’
My analysis also shows how domestic authorities harness displacement crises to challenge liberal international principles. One cohort of politicians used the discourse of ‘America First’ and its subnational variations — for instance, putting Floridians, Tennesseans, and other parochial communities first — to resist Afghan resettlement. Resistance to refugees operated as a proxy for prioritizing the local over the global. In combination with suspicions of terrorist infiltration and racialized prisms of cultural difference, some lawmakers linked Afghan evacuation efforts with ‘globalist’ agendas. They made Afghan arrivals into symbols of the dangers encroaching on ‘rural’ and ‘small-town’ identities. Challenging responsibilities to protect foreign civilians was framed as part of a wider reassertion of national and local autonomy.
These logics resemble similar arguments used by populist leaders across a wide range of countries. By targeting refugee protection, humanitarian migration and other liberal human rights principles, they capitalize on international issues to position local communities as being under attack from menacing global forces. As domestic political discourses continue to impact the safety and survival of people crossing borders around the world, we need to be attentive to the power of local leaders in implementing and contesting global principles and in ‘making sense’ of international affairs.
Local political leaders are crucial in the interpretation and application of refugee protection. Whether they facilitate services and support, reframe refugeehood as conditional, or resist refugee resettlement as a proxy for liberal internationalism, domestic policy-makers powerfully shape the everyday experiences of those fleeing persecution.
Read more on the politics of refugee protection here.
Alise Coen is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.
Her article, ‘Localizing refugeehood: norms and the US resettlement of Afghan allies’, was published in the November 2022 issue of International Affairs.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.