Home Office refuses Afghan youth orchestra visas days before London gig

A tour of England by the Afghan youth orchestra has been thrown into doubt days before it was due to begin because the Home Office has refused to grant visas to the musicians.

The orchestra’s director, Dr Ahmad Sarmast, described the decision as “heart-breaking” and said his band of 47 exiled musicians aged between 14 and 22 had been working for months on their repertoire for the shows that were due to start at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on Thursday.

The musicians from Afghanistan were also booked to play in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Sarmast said they have performed freely in Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany among other countries since they were chased out of their home country by the Taliban. Nevertheless, the Home Office has refused visas and said they cannot appeal, Sarmast said.

One of their most recent concerts was at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Among those helping them get out of Kabul were the international classical music stars Daniel Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma.

After fleeing to Qatar from their home country when the Taliban retook power in 2021, the orchestra is now based in Portugal where the players were granted immigration rights and are in education at Portuguese music schools, according to Sarmast.

But he said the Home Office had told them it was not convinced by the information the orchestra provided about the status of the students, saying it was vague.

“The group has been denied visas for entry to the UK to complete this wonderful tour called Breaking the Silence,” Sarmast told the Guardian. “We have played all over the world since we left [Afghanistan] but we never faced this.”

A Southbank Centre spokesperson said it was “extremely disappointed” by the Home Office decision and called for a U-turn.

“The orchestra is 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,” the spokesperson said.

“This decision denies UK audiences the opportunity of being inspired by their brave work and they deserve the full support of the arts community as well as the UK government. We urge the Home Office to reconsider its decision.”

The orchestra is part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which was established in 2010. When the Taliban retook power its campus in Kabul was seized as a command centre, its bank accounts were frozen, its offices ransacked and its instruments left abandoned.

Last summer the Taliban shared a picture of officials presiding over a bonfire of musical instruments and equipment. Playing and listening to music is heavily restricted under the regime.

In 2014 the ANIM symphony orchestra was performing at the French cultural centre in Kabul when a bomb ripped through the venue. Sarmast was knocked unconscious, both eardrums were perforated leaving him deaf, and he received serious shrapnel injuries. After months of treatment in Australia, he recovered his hearing.

“The main purpose of the orchestra is not only to share Afghan music in exile while it is banned and suppressed [under the Taliban] but to achieve cultural diplomacy – people to people – across the world,” he said.

“This denies our people the opportunity to let people in the UK know about what is happening in Afghanistan and share the beauty of Afghan music.”

The orchestra had prepared a repertoire of Afghan, south Asian and western classical music to perform at the Southbank Centre in London, the Tung auditorium in Liverpool, Stoller Hall in Manchester and at Birmingham Town Hall.

Assiya Amini, co-founder of Afghan Academy International, a UK Afghan community group, said: “The UK is an international focal point so this is unfortunate. It would have been great to have them here as they have been welcomed in other parts of the world. We didn’t expect this.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

Home Office refuses Afghan youth orchestra visas days before London gig