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Chernobyl: Children

Volume 470: debated on Monday 7 January 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent (a) discussions he has held with and (b) representations he has received from (i) ministerial colleagues, (ii) the Belarus ambassador and (iii) charities on Chernobyl-affected children being able to enter the UK; and if he will make a statement. (174198)

We appreciate the important work being undertaken by United Kingdom charities to provide respite care and medical treatment for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. We have held no recent discussions with the Belarus ambassador to London in respect of Chernobyl children. We have, however, recently received correspondence from hon. Members and Peers, from the Belarus ambassador to London, and from charities concerning the visa processes for visits to the United Kingdom by Chernobyl-affected children. UKvisas continues to work with the Chernobyl charities with regard to the visa procedures and the collection of biometrics from visa applicants.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how many Chernobyl-affected children received visas to visit the UK in 2007 (a) prior to 31 August and (b) since 1 September; what his assessment is of the reasons for any difference; and if he will make a statement. (174199)

3,167 gratis visas were issued to Chernobyl-affected children prior to 31 August 2007, while 111 visas have been issued in the subsequent period to 13 December 2007. The autumn is, historically, a slow period for such applications, 292 such visas being issued in the final four months of 2006. The Chernobyl charities advise that the Christmas holiday period is a busy period and UKvisas anticipated an upsurge in applications at this time. Application rates during this period may have been further affected by the collection of biometric data in Minsk. Furthermore, one charity was, temporarily, asked not to submit applications while investigations concerning one of its former hosts were ongoing. This charity has now been advised that it may resume submission of such applications.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent discussions he has held with (a) the Belarus ambassador to London and (b) directly with the Belarus Government on the establishment of a seasonal visa application centre in Gomel Oblast, Belarus. (174200)

We have held no recent discussions with the Belarus ambassador to London in respect of Chernobyl children. It was intended that a seasonal biometrics collection facility in Gomel Oblast specifically for children wishing to come to the UK for respite care would be offered. This would have been in addition to the service offered in our embassy in Minsk. However, the Government of Belarus would not allow the delivery of this visa service, including the collection of biometrics, through our commercial partnerships in the country and the embassy was compelled to adjust its plans. Correspondence with the Belarus embassy in London is ongoing. Given the lack of agreement with the Belarus authorities in respect to our commercial partnerships in Belarus, it has now been agreed that a seasonal mobile biometrics data collection service will operate on a pilot basis outside Minsk in the summer of 2008 for children in need of recuperative holidays. The pilot will involve the use of mobile biometric collection equipment in one or more regional locations between April and July. UKvisas are prepared to receive applications in Kiev, in Ukraine, where that proves to be more convenient.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received from (a) charities and (b) others on the effects of changes to visa arrangements and charges on numbers of children able to visit the UK from the Chernobyl-affected parts of Belarus. (174576)

We appreciate the important work being undertaken by United Kingdom charities to provide respite care and medical treatment for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. We have recently received correspondence from hon. Members and Peers, from the Belarus ambassador to London, and from charities, concerning the visa processes for visits to the United Kingdom by Chernobyl-affected children. UKvisas continues to work with the Chernobyl charities with regard to the visa procedures and the collection of biometrics from visa applicants. Up to 4,000 visas a year are issued to children travelling to the United Kingdom from Belarus under the auspices of the Chernobyl charities and these visas are all issued gratis. There are no plans to change this arrangement.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with reference to the answer of 19 October 2007, Official Report, columns 1375-76W, on Chernobyl: children, at what level in Belarus the UK Government application was made; and how that refusal was conveyed. (174643)

The Deputy Head of Mission, Entry Clearance Officer and Regional Deputy Director of Visa Services at our embassy in Minsk held a meeting in June 2007 with the Deputy Head of the Consular Department and other officials of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The embassy asked whether they could open Visa Application Centres (VACs) operated by their commercial partner in Belarus. The MFA said that if the embassy did open such premises they would be subject to frequent searches and/or closures by the Belarus authorities. The embassy therefore considered that they would not be able to protect the data of visa customers satisfactorily and decided not to open VACs in Belarus.

Given the lack of agreement with the Belarus authorities in respect of our commercial partner in Belarus, UKvisas and our embassy in Minsk have now agreed to invest additional resources in a seasonal mobile biometric pilot project in the summer of 2008 for Chernobyl children in need of recuperative holidays. The pilot will involve visits by embassy officials, with a mobile biometric kit, to the region where the largest number of such children live. UKvisas are also prepared to receive applications in Kiev, in Ukraine, where that proves to be more convenient.