UK-Displaced from his home country of Zimbabwe to Britain because of his political beliefs, James would like nothing better than to focus on buying Christmas presents for his sick young son.
But after waiting two and a half years to hear whether he can stay, James — not his real name — remains in limbo: legally unable to work, reliant on handouts, and struggling even to raise the bus fare to visit his son in hospital.
“I want to provide everything for my family, to have a normal life, to give people Christmas presents,” said James, 46, who has an electronics degree. Instead, having endured two winters of homelessness, he waits.
James is among a huge backlog of asylum seekers in Britain waiting years to hear if their applications have succeeded — a situation blasted in a report last month by the British parliament’s influential home affairs committee.
The report said the UK Border Agency had shelved the cases of 74,000 asylum seekers by saying it had lost touch with them; of the rest, 30 percent must wait more than three years for a decision.
Britain accepts asylum applications under UN and EU agreements, and receives about 17,000 a year, below the European average per head of population.
Yet the backlog is still growing. At one point more than 150 boxes of post, including letters from applicants and lawyers, lay unopened in a room, the report found.
James’s journey to Britain began in 2001, with a visit to his Harare home from a group of men he immediately recognised as bad news.
“There were four or five men. Three of them were wearing smart-casual type clothes with ties. They didn’t have any documents, and the car they were travelling in — I knew it was the type the CIO use,” James said, referring to Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation.
“They tried to abduct me and my friend but they wouldn’t even say why they wanted to question us. So an argument started and we ended up in a scuffle. I was hit on the forehead with a hard object.”
James managed to escape, but he knew the men would likely return, because he and his friend had been distributing membership cards for the then-opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Opponents of the government of Robert Mugabe, 88 and in power since 1980, have faced disappearances, torture and killings, according to Amnesty International.
Two of James’ brothers were in Britain, and fearing for his future, they helped him move there as a student. James went on to earn his degree from a London university.
He married a fellow Zimbabwean and joined the MDC’s British branch.
But he was no longer able to extend his student visa and did not feel safe returning to Zimbabwe to lodge a new application from there.
“The CIO are at the airport. The moment you get there, they want to know who you are, where you are coming from, why were you away for such a long time?” he said.
“I know what it’s like. I have friends who have been taken away. Some have come back beaten up, others don’t come back. The last time I tried calling one friend, he wasn’t answering, and I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
MDC chief Morgan Tsvangirai became premier in 2009 under a unity government, but human rights groups say oppression continued.
Zimbabwe, Iran and Afghanistan are the most common countries from which people seek asylum in Britain, and in 2010 James decided his only option was to join the queue.
Like many others, he received an initial refusal citing a lack of evidence. But he appealed on advice from a lawyer, remaining in the country legally.
In the meantime James was not allowed to work and the couple were destitute. His wife stayed with a friend, while James was homeless, staying in shelters if he was lucky.
“All of the winter in 2010 and 2011 I had no place to live,” he said.
“It’s been a really, really tough time.”
James’s wife gave birth to twins in 2011; one died, while the surviving son has a chronic lung condition.
Eventually, helped by charity Refugee Action, the family accessed state benefits including vouchers and basic accommodation in the northwestern city of Manchester.
But James still struggles to raise bus fares and has heard nothing on his asylum claim for two years.
He longs to work and start a normal family life.
“The legal limbo that (James) is in, like so many others in this country waiting for a decision on their asylum claim, is unacceptable,” said Dave Garratt, chief executive of Refugee Action.
Asylum applications in Europe have fallen sharply from a peak 10 years ago, but many governments continue to keep applicants waiting. In Germany they wait an average of more than 21 months, according to an EU-sponsored education project.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government, which has promised a clampdown on immigration, places emphasis on deporting illegal immigrants rather than resolving asylum cases.
But a UK Border Agency spokesperson said: “We are resolving asylum cases more quickly. Last year 63 percent of cases were dealt with within 12 months… Protection is always given where there is a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Garratt of Refugee Action added: “Whilst the number of unresolved cases can be counted, the human cost of wasted potential is beyond measure.”