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Child abuse concerns threaten kids’ visit

PLANS to bring Chernobyl children to the Highlands for a health boosting holiday are being threatened by repercussions from an Inverness child abuse scandal.
Fourteen girls, aged nine and 10, from Belarus are due to arrive in the city on 4th July after thousands of pounds were raised locally.
But the charity organising the trip the Chernobyl Children’s Life Line (CCLL) is embroiled in a wrangle with the UK Border Agency and has accused officials of using child protection issues to place obstacles in the way of issuing visas to the youngsters.
CCLL, which has links all over the UK, has already experienced difficulties obtaining visas and fears the long-planned Inverness trip, costing an estimated 10,000, may have to be scrapped.
The difficulties have arisen since CCLL found itself caught up in two child abuse cases, including that of Inverness paedophile Alan Wilson. Wilson, the former secretary of the charity’s Inverness-Nairn Link, was jailed in 2009 for four years for sexually abusing a number of yougsters over a long period, although no Chernobyl children were involved.
In a separate case, John Higham, a volunteer in England, was sacked by the charity after child abuse allegations came to light.
For a while all CCLL visa applications were blocked. Some are now being approved, but difficulties remain and Victor Mizzi, the charity’s Surrey-based executive chairman and founder, is in touch with immigration minister Damian Green in a bid to resolve the matter.
Mr Mizzi is particularly critical of an enhanced vetting process which involves investigators from the Ukraine and Russia calling UK host families to ask questions such as whether they know the names of the children.
“These types of questions surely do not identify a child molester,” he argued.
Dennis Hopkins, chairman of the charity’s Inverness link, is concerned the Inverness-bound youngsters will not be allowed to travel.
“I suppose it is the possibility that kids who obviously know they are coming over here and are looking forward to having a good time might be disappointed if they do not get a visa and there is nothing we can do about it,” he said.
He stressed everything possible had been done to satisfy the authorities, with the seven host families in Inverness undergoing disclosure checks and social services informed.
During their visit the girls, who will be accompanied by a leader, are due to take part in a range of activities.
Mr Hopkins outlined the benefits of such trips for children living in a region where the radioctive fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 is still being felt.
“The clean environment here is of great importance,” he said. “Local dentists also support the charity by giving checks and treatment. Local opticians also give them checks and supply glasses.”
Barbara Woodward of the UK Border Agency, confirmed the issue centred on the safety of vulnerable children. “The agency is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children coming to stay in the UK,” she said. “We seek assurance that parental consent has been granted and that appropriate reception arrangements are in place with host families.”
l Leader, page 10.

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