UK urged to relocate runaway Afghan women’s football team | Afghanistan

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The British government is urged to urgently resettle the players of the Afghanistan youth football team who fled the Taliban and have been offered new life with Leeds United.

The 35 young women – many of whom are teenagers – their families and football coaches are in Lahore, Pakistan on 30-day visas. But the group of 136 are at risk of returning to Afghanistan unless they are accepted by a third country soon – they must leave Pakistan by October 12.

While the Australian government evacuated the Afghan national women’s football team, the development team was left behind in Afghanistan. Their escape from Kabul was sponsored by the Rokit Foundation, responding to calls from former national women’s football team captain Khalida Popal amid the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces last month. The effort then received support from Leeds United President Andrea Radrizzani and the NGO Football for Peace.

Attempts to evacuate the girls on a chartered plane to Doha, backed by the Qatari government, failed as they were denied access to Kabul airport amid the terrorist threat. They were then stranded in the capital for another 10 days before being granted temporary visas to cross the border, after support from the Pakistan Football Federation and an intervention by 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,” said a letter the activists sent to Khan.

They have since been in a hotel in Lahore, Rokit having financed all the logistical expenses and organized the complex operation that brings them to the border, as well as food, accommodation and medical needs. But due to security pressures, the Pakistani government has said it cannot extend their visas beyond 30 days.

While their arrival in Pakistan was highly publicized, Rokit Managing Director Siu-Anne Marie Gill stressed that it was a matter of life and death. “There were pictures of their faces on TV, they will be in even more danger now. It was the girls who came out. They can’t go back to Afghanistan, we have to make it happen.

Activists wrote to Boris Johnson asking him to urgently grant safe passage to the UK for the girls, the youngest of whom is only 12, as part of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Program (ACRS ), which prioritizes women and girls at risk and those who have championed women’s rights.

In addition to the risk to life stemming from the Taliban’s stance on women’s sport, the letter points out that the girls mainly come from persecuted communities that share the Shia faith and that many of the team are from the Hazara ethnic group.

Rokit and Leeds United are ready to sponsor and co-finance their integration into UK society, including education, housing and employment. Radrizzani, who got involved in a personal capacity, said his club was ready to “give girls a prosperous and peaceful future”, offering them continuing education and scholarships in Leeds’ youth development teams .

Gill said several other football clubs, as well as education providers and local councils, were also ready to support the girls once they were in the UK.

“The race is on to find them permanent refuge,” said former Pakistani footballer and Football for Peace co-founder Kashif Siddiqi. “These girls were on the development path for the national football team. Now the very thing that gave them hope has become a risk to their lives.

The Taliban’s rise to power was catastrophic for women’s rights, with restrictions placed on women in the workplace and girls banned from education.

The die-hard 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 remove photos of themselves playing on social media and burn their kits to protect themselves from potential retaliation from the new regime. Other sportswomen still in the country have buried their sportswear and fear they will never compete again.

Downing Street said the case was “under urgent review as part of the larger resettlement program”.


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