UK refuses visas to Ukrainian orchestra members


Key members of a Ukrainian state orchestra were refused visas to play a series of concerts in the UK this month amid a “disaster” which promoters claim cost more than €100,000 (£88,000).

The Khmelnytskyi Orchestra was due to tour the UK with two shows this month: The Magical Music of Harry Potter and The Music of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Rings of Power.

The events were promoted on the UK government’s website as examples of British-Ukrainian relations. After the orchestra played a Harry Potter show in Belgium last year, Deputy British Ambassador to Brussels Chloe Lotter called it “an incredible honour to have such an iconic piece of British culture performed by a Ukrainian orchestra.” The promoter, Star Entertainment, accused the UK government of hypocrisy.

“They made a big deal about supporting the Ukrainians, but when it came to giving them visas to play in the UK, they didn’t want to know,” said chief executive Jaka Bizilj, who is well-known in the UK entertainment industry, having worked on two film projects with Richard Curtis and Cinema for After working with Bob Geldof on the Peace Foundation, which took Russian dissident Alexei Navalny from Siberia to Berlin in 2020.

He called on the culture secretary, Lucy Fraser, to step down if artists were treated this way, saying the growing number of foreign artists’ immigration problems “damages the UK’s citizens, culture and relationship with Europe”.

Many foreign artists struggle to enter the UK due to post-Brexit red tape. One of these was the German noise rock band Trigger Cut, who were turned away last week in Calais after telling border guards their day job was unrelated to music.

“Those responsible for alienating artists and culture from the UK should be named and held to account,” said Bizilj. “Bands, musicians and orchestras will no longer come to the UK at risk of being denied entry.”

The Ukrainian orchestra was due to start its UK tour with a show in Portsmouth on 1 April. But a day earlier, the core members, including the conductor and the first four violinists, had not yet received visas.

They were stuck in Paris for a week waiting for the British Embassy to issue their visa. Two days after the tour began, they were told they must pay €15,000 for emergency visas.

These 24-hour “express” visas have failed to be issued on time, said Bizilj, who accused the UK government of “holding the orchestra hostage” in Paris. “There was no genuine reason for the rejection, and this was random discrimination against Ukrainian artists,” he added.

He claimed that the visa was only issued after Star Entertainment sought an explanation from the British Embassy as planned to inform the media. But the first few concerts were too late – at the Lowry in Portsmouth, Salford and the York Barbican.

The Portsmouth show went ahead, but the UK-based musicians drafted in at the 11th hour to cover the music. They could not play the entire show, and many audience members demanded refunds, although the alternative group received a standing ovation, Bijelz said.

The Lowry show had to be postponed to 2024, and the York concert later this month. Bzilz estimates the debacle cost the company €100,000 in fees, hotel costs and reputational damage.

A government spokesman said: “Musicians and performers are a valuable and essential part of UK culture, attracting world-class entertainers and musicians from around the world. That’s why we offer a dedicated migration route for creative workers.

“All visa applications are carefully considered on their merits following the immigration rules.

“Where there are delays in processing applications, we will always try to identify how we can avoid such problems shortly by improving our back office performance and capabilities.”

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Marta Lopez

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