Afghan football girls ‘set for UK move’ as Priti Patel ‘ready to grant permission’

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Members of Afghanistan’s national girls’ team arrive at the Pakistan Football Federation (AFP via Getty Images)
Members of Afghanistan’s national girls’ team arrive at the Pakistan Football Federation (AFP via Getty Images)

Dozens of Afghan girl footballers are poised to be given sanctuary in Britain amid warnings that their lives are on a “burning platform” because temporary visas giving them exile in Pakistan are about to run out.

A group of 135 girls and young women — including members of a national girls’ team and youth players — plus family members and coaches are in Lahore after they were helped by a British aid group to escape the Taliban, who threatened to kill them for playing sport.

They risk being returned to Afghanistan when their humanitarian visas for Pakistan run out next Tuesday.

But amid calls from MPs and campaigners for them to be given sanctuary here, Home Secretary Priti Patel was on Wednesday understood to be ready to grant them permission to move to the UK.

Sources said the girls’ cases were being urgently studied by Ms Patel.

The chairman of Leeds United, Andrea Radrizzani, has promised that his Premier League club will help train them and assist their integration into society, which will also be helped by the Rokit foundation, which organised their flight from the Taliban.

The foundation’s chief executive, Siu-Anne Marie Gill, said the girls’ lives would remain under threat until any offer of sanctuary was confirmed. “Their visa runs out on October 12 and we do not want to be taking them back to the border to take them over to where we’ve just saved their lives,” she said.

“We want to bring them all to England, the home of football… These girls, they cannot go back because when they went over the Taliban spotted them and said we will kill you. They are on a burning platform — we’ve got to help them.”

She added: “It started with a call from Khalida Popal, the former Afghan national women’s team captain, saying all the girls had to burn their shirts and football things because of the Taliban coming in. These poor girls who had stuck their heads out in their villages, this national team that had been on the internet winning, obviously the Taliban knew who they were. When these girls were calling on a mobile petrified, saying they were hiding, it was horrendous.

“This group grew from 26 to 48, then 80, and the reason was that lots of other football groups left behind some people and we said we will look after them all.

“When they got off the bus at the border in the end there were 135.”

Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said the girls faced an “appalling” fate unless granted asylum.

“If they are sent back we know what happens to women and girls in Afghanistan — they will be forcibly married to Talibs or worse so it is extremely concerning,” he said. “The Home Office has said we will admit 5,000 [Afghans] a year for four years and I find it very difficult to believe that we will find many more deserving cases than these.”

The Home Office could not comment on individual cases, but a spokeswoman said the Government was “committed to doing all it can to support those most in need, including vulnerable women and girls, and those at risk who have had to flee Afghanistan.”

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