Child victims of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster are being denied charity holidays in Britain by immigration officials. Children looking forward to a month's recuperation away from nuclear contamination are having their holiday plans ruined by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), which denies them visas, often just the night before they are due to travel.
Since the disaster in 1986, British charities have helped thousands of young people from affected areas in the Ukraine and Belarus to have holidays with British families. Now those charities say their work is becoming impossible as the UKBA rejects so many visas at the last minute.
Last month only seven of 17 children due to holiday on the Isle of Wight actually made it on trips organised by Chernobyl Children's Life Line (CCLL), a charity which has brought over 46,000 children from the radioactive zone since 1991. The other 10 were told the night before departure that their holiday was cancelled. Another UK charity, Medicine and Chernobyl, has also had at least eight visas rejected this year.
Vladislav Shpachuk, 10, who lives just 110km from the site of Chernobyl, was one of those told his holiday was cancelled. He suffers constant headaches and his family cannot afford to take their doctor's advice of spending a month a year out of the contaminated zone. His mother, Svitlana Shpachuk, said that the night before he was due to leave, "he was there, sitting on his suitcase. He told us he would wait until the early morning for the minibus to collect him to the airport. Then we got the phone call to say his visa hadn't come through. We were terrified of how to tell him, and when we did, he was crying and asking 'why me?'"
The border agency says its tougher measures are driven by child safety. But British host families whose prospective visitors have been refused visas include a headmaster and former foster parents; all of whom have full Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. They are also vetted by the charity concerned. In one case, two children were due to visit the same family and only one child's visa was rejected, further calling into question UKBA's explanation.
Children in parts of Belarus and the Ukraine continue to be at greater risk of terminal illnesses because of the contaminated environment they are exposed to. A month in Britain, where they can eat cleaner food, breathe cleaner air and build up strength, can greatly improve life expectancy.
British host families said this weekend that they have been subjected to "very unconventional" screening by UKBA officials. Some have been called in the early hours of the morning by border agency officials in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk, asking them to spell from memory the names of the children due to visit them, and asking whether they will be fed properly. In some cases parents say they were never contacted and visas were simply denied, though the UKBA claims "reasonable enquiries" were made.
Paul Smith, chairman of CCLL's Isle of Wight branch and a social worker, said the border agency's measures offered no protection to children. "They have direct access to CRB files and these phone calls won't achieve anything. These families are unsung heroes who work for nothing to give these kids a chance. Damian Green and his UK Border Agency are against the human spirit."
Linda Walker MBE, executive director of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which brings young cancer survivors to the UK, has experienced similar interrogation from the border agency. "In the last 12 years we have never had a problem. They have all gone home feeling healthier and more positive about life. I am at a loss to understand why the border agency is now demanding they provide documentation to "prove" that they have a reason to go home after their stay. If they can't convince UKBA, they may be denied the chance of a holiday which means so much to them."
The problems coincide with a U-turn on offering free visas for victims. All children affected by Chernobyl are eligible for free visas for respite holidays, but the majority are now charged the full £70 fee.
Brian Bennett, the former UK ambassador to Belarus, said "These charities are better at child protection than the UK Border Agency. I can't think why [these visas are turned down]. Maybe it's to do with the fact that the visas for Chernobyl children are supposed to be free – perhaps it irks them that children are not paying."
Barbara Woodward, head of international group at UKBA, said: "This is not about red tape, this is about safeguarding vulnerable children. As part of this we seek assurance that parental consent has been granted and that appropriate reception arrangements are in place."
The victims: 'She was so traumatised, she didn't speak to us for days'
Stephen and Nicky Rea, from East Cowes, were supposed to have three children coming to stay. They have been foster parents and have two teenage children. They had full CRB checks and had hosted several times before, but all three visiting children's visas were rejected.
Mr Rea said: "We'd found toys and clothes for them and taken time off work. We've done this three times now and had no trouble. We found out their visas hadn't come through the night before. We were given no explanation at all."
One of the girls due to visit, 11-year-old Maryna Kaminska was devastated when she heard the news. Her mother, Lyudmyla Kaminska, said: "When we learned about the opportunity to send our child abroad for recuperation we thought we had struck gold. She is suffering from frequent colds, infections and hyperthyroidism. We cannot afford to send her anywhere to improve her health.
"So it was like a thunder in a blue sky when we were told that she was refused a visa. We couldn't believe it was the British Visa Section who had done this. What were we supposed to tell our girl? We couldn't believe someone could do this to a child. She was so traumatised she didn't speak to us for days."
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