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Thousands of families have fled from Taliban offensives and sought refuge elsewhere. Photo: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The United Nations refugee agency is warning of a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the Taliban nears recapturing the state.

Driving the news: "The United Nations Assistance Mission has warned that without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since the U.N.’s records began," according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • The UNHCR said women and girls may experience the heaviest toll of the violence, as they make up approximately 80% of nearly 250,000 Afghans forced to flee since the end of May.
  • "This is a staggering statistic," spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told journalists at the United Nations in Geneva. "We need to raise the alarm about the disproportionate toll they are paying for what is happening on the ground."
  • Nearly 400,000 Afghans left their homes since the beginning of the year, per the agency.

What they're saying: "UNHCR is calling on countries neighboring Afghanistan to keep their borders open in light of the intensifying crisis in Afghanistan," the agency wrote.

  • "An inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives."

State of play: The Taliban have captured more than half of Afghanistan's provincial capitals over the last week as the insurgents' lightning offensive shows no signs of slowing.

  • Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, the second-largest province in the country, fell to the Taliban on Saturday.
  • The Biden administration is preparing for the fall of Kabul and a retreat from any U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, Axios' Jonathan Swan and Glen Johnson report.

Go deeper: Afghans seek escape from Taliban siege as U.S. scrambles to secure refuge

Go deeper

U.S. will now allow private citizens to sponsor Afghan refugees

A family boards a bus at the airport that will take them to a refugee processing center after being evacuated from Kabul. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Americans wanting to help vulnerable Afghan refugees now have a new way to get involved through a new U.S. private refugee sponsorship program announced Monday.

  • Groups of at least five adults can apply, complete background checks and start fundraising the $2,275 per refugee required.

Why it matters: It’s a big shift in the U.S. refugee process, which has long relied on nonprofits.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The president of New York City's firefighters union told reporters Wednesday that he's advised unvaccinated members to ignore Mayor Bill de Blasio's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, per Reuters.

Why it matters: Under de Blasio's order that's due to take effect Friday, unvaccinated city employees would be placed on unpaid leave. But Uniformed Firefighters Association head Andrew Ansbro said he told members that "if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty," according to Reuters.

4 hours ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.