A CHARITY which provides respite to children suffering the after-effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is under threat because of financial pressures.

The government is proposing to introduce a new visa fee which will add an extra £86 onto the £500 it currently costs to bring over each disadvantaged child from Belarus for a month-long respite holiday.

Families across the country welcome a group of seven to 12-year-olds from the former Soviet state into their homes each summer.

Until now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have waived the visa charge for children visiting the UK for health reasons.

Liz Skupski, from the Blackburn branch of Friends of Chernobyl Children, said if the fees are introduced from next March it would place a heavy burden on charities already struggling to raise funds. She explained: “This is devastating news for us because, if these proposals go ahead, we will have to find an additional £1,032 each year to bring over 12 children.

“This will place a very heavy burden on our small, self-supporting charity.

“We are run entirely by volunteers and I am concerned that we could be forced to reduce the number of children we assist.

“Since the disaster happened, we have provided a lifeline for thousands of youngsters and their struggling families.

“If they proceed with their plans, the UK will be the only government in the whole of the EU to start charging for the children’s visas.”

During their visit to the UK, the children are provided with vitamins, clothing, and appointments with a dentist and optician. Heather Power, who lives in Loveclough, signed up as a host family this year.

During the summer she was visited by a seven-year-old boy called Anton.

She said: “He arrived with a rucksack that only contained a pair of socks and a pack of biscuits.

“He was the primary carer for his mother and his younger brother and sister.

“He didn’t go to school and this break gave him chance to be a child.

“These children just need a warm bed, clothing, feeding and to be shown some love.”

A nationwide ePetition has been launched and more than 100,000 signatures are needed before January 2013 for the issue to be debated in Parliament.

It has currently been signed by 5,000. To sign the petition visit epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ petitions/37945.