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Funding fears for children's respite


Families providing respite holidays for children living in the fall-out zone of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster are campaigning to save a free visa scheme.

Volunteers have been welcoming youngsters from Belarus for a month-long stay each year as part of the Friends of Chernobyl's Children project.

But they say future visits could be threatened due to the Government scrapping a Foreign Office-funded "gratis" visa scheme, after 16 years, from March 31.

It means the county's three Friends of Chernobyl groups will have to find an extra £86, on top of the £500 it already costs, to bring each child to the country.

The West Leicestershire branch, in Markfield, has been bringing over a group of 15 children, from part of Belarus still suffering from the effects of the 1986 disaster, including chronic economic underdevelopment, since 2009.

Group co-ordinator John Buckby, who runs the branch with partner Sue Platts, said: "This is devastating news because if these proposals go ahead, we will have to find an additional £1,300 each year, which will place a very heavy burden on our small, self-supporting charity.

"We are run entirely by volunteers and meet the full cost of these life-changing breaks through our fund-raising."

During their visits, the children stay with a host family who organise trips and provide them with essential healthcare such as dental treatment, eye tests and a year's supply of multivitamins to boost their immune systems.

Miss Platts said: "The bottom line is if we don't get the proposed charges thrown out, we will not be able to afford to bring the same number of children to the UK for this essential respite."

John and Sue, who live in Broughton Astley, have taken in Liza, now 11, from the town of Mogilev, every summer for the past four years.

Miss Platts said: "When she first came to the UK, she was very pale, withdrawn and apprehensive. But by the end of year two, you could see her rosy cheeks, big smile and glint in her eyes."

Val Hatherall, group co-ordinator for the East Leicestershire group, in Queniborough, said: "We bring about 20 children over every year so the extra cost to our volunteers and families will be enormous."

Helen Sewell, co-ordinator of the Vale of Belvoir branch, which welcomes 11 children every summer, said: "We receive no statutory funding and I am concerned we could be forced to reduce the number of children we assist."

A Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesman said: "Ministers decided in 2010 that the FCO-funded gratis visa scheme would unfortunately end on March 31, 2013.

"We informed the charities of our decision in November 2010."

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, has offered his support and has written to the Foreign Office seeking clarification on what help can be provided.

"I sympathise with the charities' concerns," he said.

The Friends of Chernobyl's 30 branches, nationwide, need to raise 100,000 signatures in an online petition by January to trigger a debate on the changes in Parliament. So far, about 6,500 signatures have been collected.

To sign the e-petition, go to:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ petitions/37945


Funding fears for children's respite

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