Art & Culture

Afghan Youth Orchestra granted UK visas after government reversal

The UK Home Office has reversed its initial decision to deny visas to the Afghan Youth Orchestra, enabling the ensemble to conduct a series of concerts throughout Britain.

After fleeing Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power, the musicians have resided and studied in Portugal since December 2021, where they were granted asylum. The orchestra has recently toured Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Tajikistan and is slated to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Originally, the Home Office refused to grant the members visas for UK performances, but reversed this decision on Monday. A Home Office spokesperson stated, “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture. Applications must be considered individually in accordance with immigration rules, with applicants responsible for demonstrating compliance.”

Efforts are being made by the Home Office to collaborate with organizers to secure travel consent for underage members.

Scheduled to perform at London’s Southbank Centre on Thursday as part of its “Breaking the Silence” tour and the South Asian Sounds festival, the group also plans concerts in Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham. The Southbank Centre performance is expected to be rescheduled for next week.

Diana Johnson, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, celebrated the decision reversal as “excellent news” on X, previously known as Twitter.

Shabnam Nasimi, former adviser to the Minister for Afghan Resettlement and Minister for Refugees and now director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, echoed this sentiment on X, announcing new performance dates to be confirmed soon.

The orchestra, part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), had voiced its disappointment over the initial visa refusal, urging the Home Office to reconsider. The refusal, they stated, hindered the young musicians’ goals and missed an opportunity to highlight the gender apartheid against Afghan women and the cultural rights denial by the Taliban.

The Southbank Centre had also voiced its discontent on X, describing the orchestra as a “beacon of hope and free creative expression.”

In December 2021, approximately 273 members of ANIM, including students, staff, and relatives, were granted asylum by Portugal. Ahmad Sarmast, ANIM’s director and founder, facilitated their escape from Afghanistan with donor assistance, following the Taliban’s resurgence. This effort represented the most significant rescue operation of an Afghan community since the Taliban’s August takeover.

The former ANIM campus in Kabul now serves as a Taliban command center, with the group enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia law that prohibits singing, dancing, and the education of girls beyond primary school.