Children's charity thrown visa lifeline

A CHIPPING based charity has been handed a crucial lifeline - bringing fresh hope for hundreds of Belarussian children it helps every year.

There is renewed optimism this week that the charity, the Friends of Chernobyl's Children, will be able to continue after a compromise was found over a visa wrangle that threatened to finish the organisation's vital work.

Two weeks ago The News exclusively revealed that FoCC feared they would be forced to fold because new biometric visa rules introduced in Britain would make it impossible for the youngsters to visit for the life-enhancing recuperative care provided by the charity.

The children, whose lives have been blighted by the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, had been told they would face having to travel four hours from Mogilev - the Belarussian base of FoCC - to the capital Minsk for finger scans and digital photographs to meet the new visa requirements, and fill out a 21-page application form.

Charity workers feared the tough rules would be too costly and prohibitive to allow them to continue their work.

But this week British government officials offered a partial compromise in the wake of the crisis.

Following extensive lobbying from FoCC and other Chernobyl charities they are now proposing to set up another visa office in Mogilev itself, to ease the logistical problem of getting the children all the way to Minsk.

The news has been greeted with relief by FoCC officials, whose founder and director Olwyn Keogh - who was recently awarded the MBE for her mission to improve the quality of life for Belarussian children - had warned the estimated extra 20,000 a year cost to transport the children would be impossible for her charity to bear.

Strong representations made by Britain's various Chernobyl charities at a meeting held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London last week has led to government visa representatives and Nigel Gould-Davies from the British Embassy in Minsk offering to carry out a pilot visa project in Mogilev.

The aim is to get the scheme off the ground by next summer when hundreds of children from FoCC alone are set to travel to Britain.

Chairman of FoCC's trustees, Mr Alex Ramsey who represented the charity at the meeting, said: "There was some positive news from the meeting in that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are proposing that they do a pilot project to collect visas in Mogilev. Although it is a provisional proposal at the moment, they seem committed to doing it."

He said government research had revealed 70 per cent of the children who visited Britain came from the Mogilev region and because of this it was believed the city was the natural centre to set up the pilot project.

"The decision doesn't suit all the charities, but it certainly suits us. It is manageable now by making it more local. We will still need to organise the children and get the visas done, but it will be much easier. It will also cost us much less."

He said this Christmas 82 FoCC children are being treated to extra visits to Britain by their host families and the logistics of getting all the children involved to Minsk - as the new visas are already required in Belarus - by train, proved quite an ordeal.

"We are much more hopeful now and if the current proposals come off it will be a much more manageable situation. It is a big relief. They have made quite a big concession here. It shows they can be responsive sometimes," concluded Mr Ramsey, adding the officials had perhaps acted because of the high profile held by the Chernobyl charities and due to growing public reaction.

FoCC support groups continue to grow and on average the charity brings around 650 children over to Britain each year, many for four or five consecutive annual visits.