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 recognized 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 traveling in — I knew it was the type the CIO use,” James said, referring to Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organization.
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).
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.”