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Refugee theatre company denied entry to Malta after airline deemed cast ‘suspicious’

Phosphoros Theatre members Goitom Fesshaye, Syed Haleem Najibi and Tewodros Aregawe pictured at Heathrow Airport
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A refugee theatre company has been left “heartbroken” after one of its cast members was refused entry to Malta, where the group had been invited to perform.

Phosphoros Theatre, which performs political work by refugee actors, had been invited to perform its show Pizza Shop Heroes at a conference about migration by the Maltese President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

However, members of the theatre company told The Stage they were challenged by officials for Air Malta at the bag drop for their flight at Heathrow Airport on February 19.

According to co-artistic director of the company Kate Scarlett Duffy, officials said multiple times that the group, consisting of Duffy, four cast members who are refugees and two creatives, looked “suspicious”.

Duffy said the cast members’ travel documents were scrutinised for three hours, with the group returning the next day to be told that one of the actors, Syed Haleem Najibi, would be unable to travel as the officials claimed they had never heard of the Home Office Certificate of Travel that he was carrying.

Phosphoros Theatre tweeted that the experience was “stressful, upsetting and heartbreaking”.

“It was absolutely gutting,” Duffy said.

“The show is about child asylum seekers who are now adults and what it means to be a young man of colour or a muslim in Britain today. The conference we were going to was an amazing opportunity for them to have their voices heard and the people at the conference could have had a rich conversation, but now this sadly can’t happen.”

Duffy added that Malta Air did not cite any legislation as to why the travel documentation was invalid. She said the system was “unfit for purpose”.

Najibi told The Stage: “Since the day I left my home I have been experiencing [things like] this; it’s been seven years and it’s probably going to be for the rest of my life. I’m used to this reaction all the time.

“It was a big disappointment, everyone was really excited to perform internationally. The conference is about me and my community, so I should be there, there should be the voices of my community.”

He added: “It’s not going to affect my motivation or my strength. It gives me more motivation to do this, it’s not something that’s going to affect our work, we will come back stronger and we will keep challenging this hostile system.”

When approached for comment, the Home Office clarified that the “acceptability of a UK travel document is a matter between the holder and the country/countries to which the holder wishes to travel.”

Air Malta has been contacted for comment.

Phosphoros Theatre’s Syed Haleem Najibi: ‘We’ve told our stories in court many times, but here we take centre stage’

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