Charity’s anger at government plan for Chernobyl visa fee

BREAK AWAY Chernobyl children during a recent outing to Fratton Park
BREAK AWAY Chernobyl children during a recent outing to Fratton Park
The first day the organ sounded - from left, 
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EVERY year they give children living in the aftermath of one of the world’s most catastrophic disasters a new lease of life.

But new government legislation could mean youngsters from Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, could miss out on experiencing trips to south Hampshire.

From March 31 next year a visa scheme from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which enabled the children to enter the UK for free will be axed.

The Portsmouth and Hayling Island Link of the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline charity has been bringing youngsters over from the Ukraine and Belarus affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster to stay with host families for a month at a time.

The change means the charity will have to pay out an extra £86 per child on top of the fundraising members carry out throughout the year.

The charity, which was set up nationally by Victor Mizzi 20 years ago, has now launched an online petition seeking the government to reverse the decision.

The petition needs around 100,000 signatures to make a difference.

It’s a tall order, but Rob Baker, vice chairman of the Portsmouth and Hayling Island Link, said the charity would otherwise struggle to bring more children over each year.

He said: ‘The problem tends to be that we, as a group, have to raise £8,000 a year to bring 12 children over

‘If we have to pay for the visas, it’s potentially another £1,000 on top.

‘It’s hard enough to raise £8,000 as it is, even with all the help we have. Everyone does it voluntarily. It seems to be unfair as the UK seems to be the only country doing this. The children are being penalised even though they have done nothing wrong.

‘The kids have a fantastic time here.

‘It is estimated that bringing them over can extend their lives for two years – you see how they blossom.’

It was in April 1986 that a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl power station exploded, contaminating the land with high levels of radiation and leaving a devastating legacy in the region.

The month-long visits to our area are aimed at restoring the children’s immune systems after years of living on contaminated food.

Marian Stapley, chairman of the link and area co-ordinator, has been hosting children at her Paulsgrove home for seven years.

She said: ‘It’s an amazing experience for the children.

‘They are all suffering from the effects of radiation and there’s a chance they can develop thyroid cancer and leukaemia.

‘When they go back they have their radiation levels checked, they have put on a few pounds and look completely different.

‘That’s why we bring them over, for respite care.

‘I would be gutted if we had to stop. It’s what keeps my family going.’

Chris Penney hosts children with his wife, Kim.

He said: ‘They are disadvantaged enough and what we are trying to do is bring a bit of sunshine into their lives. Hosting is a real pleasure. You are in tears when they have to go back.

‘Anything that blocks this is wrong.’

A government spokesman said: ‘The government has supported the visa project for the Chernobyl Children Charities for more than 16 years, helping thousands of children per year to travel to the UK for respite care. The many charities involved have done a fantastic job organising the trips over the years.

‘In recent years we have had to make some very difficult spending decisions.

‘Ministers decided in 2010 that the FCO-funded visa scheme would unfortunately end on March 31, 2013.

‘We informed the charities of our decision in November 2010. Our intention was to allow them plenty of time to seek alternative sources of funding. We have offered to work with them to do this.

‘The charities will continue to have access to visas under a Memorandum of Understanding agreed with the UK Border Agency. This ensures the proper safeguards are in place but also provides a facilitated service for the charities.’

To sign the charity’s e-petition, visit http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/37945.