'My family are in shock': Ukrainian refugees trapped in France for weeks amid Home Office visa delays

Kat with her parents, Oleksandr and Vira, at her graduation from the University of Cambridge in June 2017. (Kat Karpenko)

When missiles were fired at the hospital where Oleksandr Karpenko was working as a trauma surgeon, he and his colleagues would hide in the basement until the bombing had stopped.

Oleksandr, 60, and his wife Vira Karpenko, 59, also a doctor, stayed in their home in Irpin, less than 30 km from Kyiv, for just over a week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

In early March, after the hospital was bombed and seeing that the situation was rapidly declining, the couple made the difficult decision to flee their country.

Read more: Zelenskyy: Russia 'hiding evidence' of mass killings in Ukraine

Packing their possessions into their car, they fled with their 19-year old-nephew Nikita, who is disabled, escaping just two days before Russians soldiers occupied Irpin.

During a gruelling three-day journey out of Ukraine, the Karpenkos narrowly avoided bullets as cars around them were shot at, eventually managing to cross the border into Poland.

Oleksandr and Vira's daughter, Kat Karpenko, 26, has lived in the UK for 10 years, taking her A-Levels before reading history at Cambridge University. The family decided to seek refuge with her.

Now at an IT advisory firm in London, Kat has been working tirelessly to be reunited with her family in the UK.

However, due to delays and confusion with the visa process, Kat's family have been trapped in limbo for weeks.

Oleksandar and Vira have been stranded with their disabled nephew Nikita in Paris since 11 March - unable to reunite with their daughter Kat in the UK. (Nikita Shepel)

The British government has established two main routes for Ukrainian refugees to claim asylum in the UK:

  • The Ukraine Family Scheme: which allows refugees to stay with family members in the UK

  • The Homes for Ukraine Scheme: which allows Brits to sponsor individuals or families to stay with them (either in their home, or in another property) for a minimum of 6 months

The system has been riddled with issues and delays. And, at present, the UK is the only place in Europe asking Ukrainians to provide visas to gain entry to the country.

As of Friday, 43,600 Ukrainians had applied for visas through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but just 12,500 visas had been issues, leaving tens of thousands of people trapped waiting for their paperwork.

A further 36,300 have applied for family visas, of whom 28,500 have received one.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called the figures a "total disgrace".

"Where is the Home Secretary?" Cooper said. "She needs to account for these scandalous and shameful delays that are letting everyone down."

Kat spoke to Yahoo News UK about the difficulties she and her family have faced.

The Karpenkos celebrated Christmas together with Kat's boyfriend in December 2021 where he proposed, just weeks before Russia's invasion. (Kat Karpenko)

On 5 March she flew to Krakow, Poland, where she met with her parents and her nephew to begin their application for asylum.

Kat promised her sister – who has remained in Ukraine to care for their grandmother and stay with her husband who is serving in the territorial army – to look after her son.

“We tried to apply for UK family scheme while we were in Poland, and then we tried to book an appointment for biometrics and a visa in Poland, but the nearest date was two weeks ahead on 24 March," said Kat.

Read more: Russia removed from UN Human Rights Council after Ukraine atrocities

With accommodation hard to come by in Poland due to the number of refugees pouring in from Ukraine, and the appointment so far away, the four of them decided to travel to France.

"There was an appointment on the 11 March, so we drove 22 hours to Paris to get there exactly for the appointment," said Kat.

Almost a month later, her parents and nephew are still stuck in France while Kat, who has had to return to London to work, battles with the Home Office process.

She has called the Home Office every day trying to gather information, but says she has struggled to get through, and to get answers from operators.

Kat's father Oleksandar worked as a traumatologist in a hospital in Irpin, Ukraine, before it was bombed and he was forced to flee on 5 March. (Kat Karpenko)

“I received communication last week, which was only to my dad, not to my mum and my nephew, saying technically I do not qualify for family Ukraine scheme [because I don’t have permanent residency yet] - so maybe I want to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme instead," said Kat.

Kat then applied again via the Homes for Ukraine route.

Meanwhile, her family's biometrics have been taken by visa processing centre in France, which now means they are stuck in the country as they are required to make an onward journey.

Kat is worried about the impact all this is having on her family.

Read more: ‘I've found a second home’: Holocaust survivor, 98, defies odds to reach Germany after fleeing Kyiv

“My family in Paris are in shock," said Kat.

"They're in a different country, they don't speak the language, they just went through this terrible journey escaping and fleeing from Ukraine - where cars next to them were shot at while as they were trying to flee my hometown.

"They have no idea about what’s happened to our family home, everything they've built is destroyed, and they have this state of uncertainty.”

She added: “On the first night I met them in Krakow, I was with my mother - and when she fell asleep for three hours she was shaking unintentionally in her sleep, jumping.”

Kat said her mother now shakes in her sleep. (Kat Karpenko)

For Kat's friends and family who have stayed in Ukraine, the horrors are unimaginable.

“I was just talking to some of my volunteer friends [I went to school with], and they're driving around taking the animals left behind - most of the dogs have been shot," she said.

"And what’s worse, is that [the Russians] would shoot a dog and then mine the dog - so, if someone tried to bury the dog or touch them, they would blow up. And they would do the same for dead bodies - which is crazy.”

She has heard from friends who have experienced atrocities in Bucha. just a 15-minute drive from her home town.

"I can't disclose the names, because it's very sensitive, but there was a girl who's nine years old who got raped, and she didn’t survive," said Kat.

Read more: Ukrainian village leader and her family found shot and buried in shallow grave

“Two women I know of, 21 and 34, got raped - one, who is 31, had her son in the same room when she got raped.

"It's terrible."

Kat's MP, Florence Eshalomi, who is helping with the Karpenko's case, told Yahoo News UK the situation has been "a nightmare for the past few days" with the Home Office.

"The last thing people want to do at a time when they are fleeing war is applying multiple times, generating another reference number, being told that you've applied in the wrong system, go and apply again," said the Labour MP for Vauxhall.

"Who has the luxury for that when literally fleeing bombs?”

The Karpenkos still do not know what has happened to their family home in Irpin, Ukraine. (Kat Karpenko)

Eshalomi's complaints join the growing frustration with the Home Office's management of Ukrainian refugees.

Users of the system have reported delays and bureaucracy, finding the forms long and overcomplicated.

Indeed, ministers have even criticised the government on the issue.

"We know things are not good," refugees minister Lord Harrington admitted to LBC on Tuesday.

There are also reports cabinet ministers are clashing over the issue, with home secretary Priti Patel and foreign secretary Liz Truss at loggerheads.

Read more: '50 people killed' by Russian strike on Ukraine train station used for evacuation

When approached for comment on the Kat's story, a government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we have launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history.

"In just four weeks, over 40,000 visas have been issued so people can rebuild their lives in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine.

“We are continuing to speed up visa processing across both schemes, including boosting caseworkers and simplifying the forms and we expect thousands more to come through these uncapped routes.”

But for Kat's family, the drawn out process has made them question their decision to seek refuge in the UK.

“Psychologically, my family are in a state of limbo," said Kat.

"And it’s a little bit sad for them to know that the country they’re supposed to be coming to is not exactly keen to welcome them.”

Watch: UN Votes to Remove Russia From Human Rights Council