Performers from the Belarus Free Theatre who had been smuggled out of their homeland into Ukraine in October last year came to London in February to perform their critically acclaimed play Dogs of Europe, which sold out at the Barbican. Eight days into their show, war in Eastern Europe erupted, meaning there is now “no home left” for the 16 artists.
The group had hoped to set up a base in Poland. However, with the majority of Ukrainian refugees heading there, they do not want “to take their places”.
Natalia Kaliada, the Belarus Free Theatre founder, is pleading for refugee status, and for their visas to be extended from within the UK until then, arguing they “will be arrested and go to jail” if they return to Belarus.
She said: “Ukraine became a second home – now Russia has the war against our family and friends in Ukraine.
“And Poland is welcoming 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees.
“But there is no place for the company to be accommodated there, because those places are needed for Ukrainian refugees who are running from the war.
“And we’re not able to take their places. We must stay here. We want refugee status.”
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The Belarus Free Theatre members are currently staying with friends of Ms Kaliada and her partner, who have been political refugees in the UK capital for more than 10 years.
President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally to Vladimir Putin, and Moscow used Belarusian territory as a staging post for its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
When Russia’s plans started to take shape nearly a month ago, Minsk said it “respected and understood” the country’s decisions.
Lukashenko, who has held onto power after an election widely condemned as rigged in his favour in which he insists he received 80 percent of the vote, on Saturday confirmed, once again, his tight relations with Putin.
The 67-year old authoritarian leader said the Russian president is “in better shape than ever”.
In an interview with the Japanese television channel TBS, he claimed: “He and I haven’t only met as heads of state, we’re on friendly terms.”
Footage shared by state news agency BelTA shows him saying: “I’m absolutely privy to all his details, as far as possible, both state and personal.”
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Ms Kaliada, denouncing the Belarusian regime, said authorities “started to come after relatives of members of our ensemble” the summer after the country’s election
She told The Telegraph: “It was absolutely clear at that moment that it was necessary to take them out, so we started to work on the emergency exits of the whole company.”
Highlighting the difficulties the actors are encountering, with stories of beatings, harassment and intimidation, Ms Kaliada said: “The UK Government should grant the same humanitarian visas as the Polish and German governments do for Belarusian dissidents.
“It shouldn’t send Belarusians back to Belarus to get British visas – they have to be released within the UK. Because if people go to Belarus it means one thing – they will go to jail.”
She added: “We’re asking for a home where we’re able to perform every day, where we’re able to educate Belarusians, Ukrainians, those who escaped the dictatorship and the war.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The UK has a long tradition of providing protection to those who need it, including those who are fleeing political persecution.
“Immigration advice is readily available for those who wish to make enquiries about their status in the UK.”