Refugee actor invited to perform migration play in Malta barred entry by immigration officials

Tom Embury-Dennis

An actor in a refugee theatre company invited to Malta to perform a play on migration has been barred from entering the country.

Phosphoros Theatre Company (PTC), a London-based organisation which produces plays starring refugees and asylum seekers, said Afghan refugee Syed Haleem Najibi was turned away at Heathrow Airport on Tuesday despite having the necessary documentation.

It came following a “heartbreaking” 24 hours, the troupe said, in which Mr Najibi and six fellow actors were barred from their initial flight, told they were “suspicious”, and forced to sleep overnight in a hotel, according to the company.

According to the PTC, the group were told by Air Malta employees on Monday that those using refugee travel documents required a visa to enter the country, which they did not have. That appears to contradict 2017 guidelines suggesting those with refugee travel documents are able to freely travel to Malta.

“None of these people need visas for Malta. We obviously checked because we are not careless,” PTC tweeted on Tuesday. “Our actors’ travel documentation were scrutinised for three hours. We were told multiple times that our group was suspicious.”

“A different staff member said, ‘they are suspicious because they could be, you know...’,” PTC continued, adding that the company should be "ashamed".

A spokesperson for the theatre company told The Independent the group were “shouted at” and treated with “suspicion” by Air Malta staff.

Air Malta have been contacted for comment. In a tweet the company said it showed "concern" for what had happened, but that the company had "followed procedure" in line with immigration laws.

The following day, after consultation with the Maltese president's office – the troupe were due to perform at an event hosted by The President's Foundation for Wellbeing NGO – and immigration officials, PTC said Air Malta staff partially backtracked and allowed all apart from Mr Najibi to board an Air Malta flight.

Mr Najibi, they said, was still barred because his “certification of travel" document – one of four different types of UK travel documentation for non-citizens – is unrecognised by Malta.

But Mr Najibi’s colleagues refused to take the flight without him.

“We are devastated to be denied entry into Malta,” PTC’s spokesperson said. “As a company dedicated to sharing the stories of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, this was a huge opportunity for us to speak and perform at an international conference, discussing this very topic.

“We expected to contribute to discussions between UN and EU representatives and finally have our voices heard on a global level.”

The President’s Foundation of Wellbeing Society, founded by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, had invited the company to perform a production at the Lost in Migration conference, but later said Mr Najibi was turned away because he failed to apply for a travel visa.

“It is with a heavy heart that we have to announce that the shows have to be cancelled but Malta’s laws must be respected,” a spokesperson said, according to the Times of Malta.

The Home Office said Mr Najibi’s visa status is an issue for Maltese authorities, who were unavailable for comment.

Mr Najibi said: “We have been going through this since the day we left our homes and will probably be facing this for the rest of our lives.”

"But we need to stand up against this, as we are doing at the moment, and keep challenging this system. Sometimes we try to forget and try to belong, but this system keeps turning us down.”