£86 visa plan puts holidays for sick Chernobyl children in jeopardy

Kenny Turnbull with Pascha, a seven-year-old from Chernobyl
Kenny Turnbull with Pascha, a seven-year-old from Chernobyl
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CHILDREN affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster will no longer be able to travel to Scotland for recuperative holidays under government plans to charge for visas, campaigners have claimed.

Charities across Scotland that have funded visits for children from Belarus and Ukraine since the late 1980s say that the introduction of an £86 charge per visa will mean a reduction in the number of youngsters making the trip.

The Labour MP for West ­Lothian, Graeme Morrice, has tabled a motion in House of Commons opposing the ­Foreign and Commonwealth Office decision to introduce the visa charges in March. He has also launched an e-petition urging the government to reverse the policy.

Each year dozens of Scottish families open up their homes to hundreds of children suffering debilitating health conditions that are the legacy of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Currently the charities that fund the trips run fund-raising events to pay for airfares and essentials such as clothes and vitamins for the children. The cost of bringing a child to Scotland is estimated at £600.

Kenny Turnbull, from Broxburn, West Lothian, co-ordinator, of the West Lothian group of Friends of Chernobyl’s Children, is spearheading the national campaign to get the visa decision reversed.

Turnbull, his wife Alison and sons, Calum and Marc, have played host to several children from Chernobyl including ­seven-year-old Pascha who arrived in 2010.

“When we first set eyes on him at Edinburgh Airport he was a shy, unconfident little boy,” said Turnbull. “Like the other children his immune system was shattered and he was undernourished and weak. He was fascinated by everything he saw and after the first night began eating like a horse. After a day or two he was the most boisterous out of the group and a different boy by the time he went back, healthier, and in terms of his behaviour, calmer and happier.

“We take them to a local dentist and Specsavers give free glasses. We provide them with good food and a year’s supply of vitamins for them and their families when they go home,” said Turnbull.

Morrice described the decision as “penny pinching at its worse”.

He added: “The UK government’s decision to end the free visas is heartless and risks reducing the number of children able to benefit from these visits in future.

“I was pleased to highlight this issue in Parliament and urge people in West Lothian who share my concerns to sign the e-petition calling on the Government to reverse its ­decision.”

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26 April, 1986, when a reactor at the nuclear power station in northern Ukraine exploded releasing over 190 tonnes of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere. It subjected the people of Chernobyl to radioactivity 90 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb and has left behind a devastating health legacy.

Since the explosion there has been an 800 per cent increase in cancers in children living near the reactor and a huge rise in babies born with severe physical disabilities. Thyroid cancer has increased by 3,000 per cent and it is estimated that over the next 15 to 20 years more than 40,000 ­children will contract the ­disease. A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “The government has supported the gratis 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.

“In recent years we have had to make some very difficult spending decisions. Ministers decided in 2010 that the FCO-funded gratis visa scheme would unfortunately end on 31 March 2013.”

Access the e-petition here.