Time is running out to save a group of young Afghan footballers and their families who fled to Pakistan but now face the prospect of a return to life under the Taliban.
An urgent appeal has been made to the British government to welcome members of the Afghan national youth football team before their visas expire on October 12.
The group, made up of 25 families, are currently staying in Lahore on 30-day humanitarian visas, but they will be forced to return to Afghanistan if they are not offered asylum before their visa expires.
Siu-Anne Marie Gill, CEO of the ROKiT Foundation who helped fund and organize the group’s rescue from Afghanistan, said: in their life.
“These girls loved soccer like our children, played soccer like our children, and now their dreams have collapsed.”
She said I asylum negotiations for the 129-player squad and their relatives were at a “delicate stage” and they don’t expect to skip the line, but remain “optimistic” something could be done to make sure they don’t have to go back to Afghanistan.
“The UK government has been extremely helpful, they are working hard to make things happen,” she added.
Approaches have also been made to the Australian, Danish and German governments for assistance.
The plight of young footballers was first highlighted in the media by Khailda Popal, former national captain of the women’s team.
The ROKiT Foundation, the charitable arm of a UK-based company, saw the call and offered to help, fund and organize the rescue.
After two weeks in hiding, the girls and their families managed to enter Pakistan by bus but were beaten at the border.
They are currently staying in a hotel in Lahore, but their emergency visas will expire on October 12, and if they are returned to Afghanistan, it is highly likely that they will “die,” Ms. Gill said.
She said the girls and their families were at high risk of violence and forced marriage under the Taliban. Many of the team are from the Hazaras ethnic group, a minority group whom the regime regards as heretics and which they have persecuted in the past.
The squad includes players, coaches and referees from the junior team (aged 13-19) and four members of the U23 youth squad who missed the team’s evacuation to Portugal.
Last month, Ahmadullah Wasiq, an official with the Taliban’s cultural commission, announced that women were now banned from playing sports for fear of exposing their bodies too much.
“Islam and the Islamic Emirate do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sport they are exposed to,” he told SBS News in Australia.
Ms Gill said the UK may decide to grant asylum to the group now on humanitarian grounds under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Program (ACRS).
And if they are successful, Ms Gill said Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani had offered to help relocate the team with RokIT and find them work in Leeds.
The Interior Ministry was approached by I to comment on an asylum offer for this group.