The UK government is being asked to urgently resettle female players from Afghanistan’s junior football team who fled the Taliban and have been offered a new life with Leeds United.
The 35 young women – many of whom are in their teens – their families and football coaches are in Lahore, Pakistan, on 30-day visas. But the 136-strong group face returning to Afghanistan unless they are accepted by a third country soon – they have to leave Pakistan by 12 October.
While the Australian government evacuated the Afghan national female football team, the development squad was left behind in Afghanistan. Their escape from Kabul was sponsored by the Rokit Foundation, responding to pleas from the national women’s football team’s former captain, Khalida Popal, amid the chaotic withdrawal of western forces last month. The effort then received support from Leeds United’s chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, and the NGO Football for Peace.
Attempts to evacuate the girls with chartered aircraft to Doha, backed by the Qatari government, failed as they were denied access to Kabul airport amid the terror threat. They were then stranded in hiding in the capital for another 10 days before being granted temporary visas to cross the border, after support from the Football Federation of Pakistan and an intervention from the prime minister, Imran Khan.
The girls were at immediate risk from the Taliban “because of their association with women’s football in Afghanistan and their participation in national public football tournaments,” a letter the campaigners sent to Khan said.
They have been in a hotel in Lahore since, with ROKiT having funded all logistical expenses and organising the complex operation getting them to the border, as well as food, accommodation and medical needs. But because of security pressures, the Pakistani government has said it cannot extend their visas beyond the 30 days.
As their arrival in Pakistan was well publicised, CEO of Rokit, Siu-Anne Marie Gill, stressed this was a matter of life and death. “There were photos of their faces on TV, they will be in even more danger now. They’re the girls that got out. They cannot go back to Afghanistan, we have got to make this happen.”
Gill has written to Boris Johnson asking him to urgently grant safe passage to the UK for the girls, the youngest of whom is only 12, on the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which prioritises at-risk women and girls and those who have stood up for women’s rights.
As well as the risk to life stemming from the Taliban’s stance on female sport, the letter stresses that the girls are drawn predominantly from persecuted communities who share the Shia faith and many of the squad are from the Hazara ethnic group.
Rokit and Leeds United are prepared to sponsor and co-finance their integration into British society, including with education, housing and employment. Radrizzani, who got involved in a personal capacity, said his club stood ready to “give the girls a prosperous and peaceful future”, offering them further education and academy scholarships at Leeds’s youth development teams.
Gill said several other football clubs, as well as education providers and local councils, were also poised to support the girls once they were in the UK.
“The race is on to find them a permanent safe haven,” said former Pakistan footballer and co-founder of Football For Peace, Kashif Siddiqi. “These girls were on the path for development for the national football team. Now, the very thing that gave them hope has become a risk to their life.”
The Taliban’s sweep to power has been catastrophic for women’s rights, with restrictions on women in workplaces and girls effectively banned from education.
The hardline Islamist group recently said Afghan women would be banned from participating in all sports. After their takeover last month, players were warned by Popal to delete pictures of themselves playing on social media and to burn their kits to protect themselves from potential reprisals from the new regime. Other female sports players still in the country have buried their sportswear and fear they may never compete again.
Downing Street said the case was being “urgently looked at as part of the wider resettlement scheme”.