Afghan Youth Orchestra granted UK visas after government U-turn

Group due to perform its first concert at the Southbank Centre in London

The Afghan Youth Orchestra were granted asylum in Portugal in December 2021. PA
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A decision to deny the Afghan Youth Orchestra visas for entry into Britain has been reversed by the Home Office, allowing the group to perform a series of concerts across the country.

The group fled Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban, and its musicians have lived and studied in Portugal, where they were granted asylum in December 2021.

The orchestra has toured in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Tajikistan in recent months and is also due to play at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

However, the Home Office initially declined to grant members visas to play in the UK before performing an about-turn on Monday.

A Home Office official said: “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture.

“Applications have to be considered on their individual merits in accordance with the immigration rules, with the responsibility on applicants to demonstrate they meet these rules.”

It is understood that the Home Office is working with organisers to ensure consent is obtained for minors to travel.

The orchestra had been due to perform at the Southbank Centre in London on Thursday as part of its Breaking the Silence tour, and the venue's South Asian Sounds festival, before giving concerts in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

It is understood the Southbank Centre performance will be rearranged, possibly for next week.

Diana Johnson, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, posted on X that the reversal of the Home Office decision was “excellent news”.

It was welcomed by Shabnam Nasimi, a former adviser to the Minister for Afghan Resettlement and Minister for Refugees and the current director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan.

She wrote on X: “The Home Office have overturned their decision to deny the visas of the Afghan Youth Orchestra to the UK.

“New dates to be confirmed soon. We can’t wait to welcome them to UK at @southbankcentre & then Birmingham, Liverpool & Manchester.”

The group – an ensemble of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music – had expressed its “profound disappointment” over the visa refusal and called on the government department to reconsider its decision.

The statement added: “The visa refusal not only dealt a significant blow to the young musicians' aspirations but also deprived these young musicians an opportunity to raise awareness through music about the gender apartheid against Afghan women and denial of cultural rights of the Afghan people by the Taliban.”

The Southbank Centre had also earlier posted on X to express its disappointment at the visa denials, calling the orchestra “a beacon of hope and free creative expression”.

“Its brave young people have been forced to leave their homeland because of a repressive regime and they have found a home in Portugal, where they have refugee status,” it said, adding that the musicians deserved the full support of the arts community and the British government.

About 273 members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, including students, staff and relatives, arrived in Lisbon in December 2021 after the Portuguese government granted them asylum.

The Institute's director and founder, Ahmad Sarmast, arranged to get his students out of the country, helped by donors, following the return of the Taliban. They escaped to Qatar before making their way to Portugal.

It was the largest rescue operation of a self-contained Afghan community since the militants seized power of the country in August, the music institute said.

Its campus in Kabul is now a Taliban command centre.

Under their strict interpretation of sharia law, the Taliban have banned singing, dancing and educating girls beyond primary school.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 11:33 AM