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Peter Popham meets an Angolan refugee who would be facing death if the Asylum Bill had been law two years ago
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The Independent Online
Why is a middle-aged African professional man killing time in an attic flat in Paddington, at the taxpayers' expense, while his war- torn country goes begging for the sort of skills he possesses?

The reason is that he is on the death list of one of the parties to the civil war in his country. Narrowly escaping murder, he fled Africa for his life. He came to Britain because it was the only available destination, and because he understood us to have a policy of granting asylum to political refugees. As Michael Howard's new Asylum and Immigration Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, Mr X was in the early stages of discovering the limits to that policy.

"We have a long tradition of offering sanctuary to genuine refugees," Mr Howard said recently in the House of Commons, introducing the new Bill. "That will continue. But only 4 per cent of those who apply for asylum in this country are successful. The overwhelming majority are not entitled to asylum, are not refugees ..."

Mr X applied for asylum more than a year and a half ago, and has yet to receive any indication from the Home Office of whether or not he is likely to succeed. It is not yet clear whether he will be judged to fall within the sainted 4 per cent or the scoundrelly 96. The wait has no set term, and as he can have no idea what lies at the end of it, it is a limitless extension of the torment from which he fled.

Mr X is an architect. He was born 50 years ago in Angola, and lived there until he was 14, when the civil war forced his family to flee north into Zaire. In the capital, Kinshasa, he spent the rest of his childhood. He studied architecture at university there, graduated and set up in practice.

Finding work wasn't hard: there were only 20 architects in the whole country. But Angola was where his heart remained. When it became independent in 1975 he went back home with his wife.

"I wanted to help to build up my country," he tells me in his small, bare flat, his face screwed up with the effort of memory. "Until that time all of Angola's professionals were in exile due to the war. The country needed our help."

But the war between the rival parties, MPLA and Unita, flared up again. He had to abandon his fledgling practice and flee north with his wife and children, hiding in villages in the depths of the forest and finally crossing back into Zaire by canoe. They took nothing but the clothes they were standing up in.

Back in Kinshasa in the mid-Eighties and employed as assistant professor in the school of architecture, his thoughts and those of fellow exiles again turned to Angola. "We formed a study group of Angolan intellectuals to discuss ways of improving things in our country when the war finally ended and we were able to return.

"One of the problems we wanted to tackle was the shortage of cheap housing in the country. We set up a non-governmental organisation to address the problem. As the only person among us with experience both of Angola and of life in the refugee camps, I became in effect its director."

Unfortunately Unita, one of the warring parties in Angola with a strong base inside Zaire, took an interest. It was now 1992, Angola's first free elections were due to be held, and Unita was looking for something to put in its manifesto. This reconstruction plan looked a possibility.

"They asked if we would co-operate with them. I said no, because I realised it was just for purposes of demagogy: they would use it in the election campaign, but afterwards forget all about it."

From that moment, his life became a nightmare. "They decided that those who were not with them were against them. Three months later I was arrested, held for one week in a cell, beaten and tortured and forced to sleep on the earth. On the seventh day they let me go home - but they said, 'we are going to come and get you again'."

He began to have problems at work: he was denounced as a foreigner, an agent of the Angolan government, he was told that he was going to lose his job. Before that could happen, something far worse intervened.

"At the end of August I took a trip to the south of Zaire to visit my sister in hospital there. On the night of the day that I left home, nine soldiers came to my house to arrest me again. As I was away, they beat and raped my wife, beat my children and wrecked our home. My wife had to be treated in hospital for her injuries."

Mr X himself was seized, thrown into a Land-Rover and taken to a camp on the Angolan border. He was held for 15 days, stripped naked, sodomised, tortured and starved. "They intended to kill me, once they had got any information I might have. Luckily one of the guards belonged to my tribe and got me out alive."

It was the end of any sort of normality for Mr X and his family. Their chances now of a peaceable future in either Zaire or Angola were nil. He made his way back to Kinshasa.

"When I found out what had happened to my family, I nearly went mad; for three days I went without eating or sleeping, just crying continually. My wife had left a letter for me with friends, explaining that she had had to leave out of concern for the safety of the children."

He failed to find her, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told him that it could do nothing to help, and advised him to leave the country.

"I didn't know if my family was alive or dead. I collected my second son, who had taken refuge with his godfather, and took the first flight I could get, which was going to London via France. I spoke no English, I had never spent any time in an Anglophone country. If I had had any choice I wouldn't have come here, where I am unable to do anything."

It was 19 months ago that Mr X arrived at Heathrow with his 16-year-old son. The day they arrived he contacted UNHCR in London. He was advised to apply for political asylum immediately, which he did. The UNHCR wrote to the Home Office three times in support of his application; there has been no response.

Mr X and his son have been able to eke out a life of sorts on income support. In the future that will not be the case: Peter Lilley, the social security minister, has announced that from 8 January, asylum-seekers who do not apply for asylum at their port of arrival will no longer have that entitlement.

Like many other asylum-seekers, Mr X is tormented by grief and fear. Separated for nearly two years now from his wife and seven other children (they are in a similarly uncertain condition in Holland), with no clear prospect beyond an encounter with Home Office bureaucrats which month after month fails to occur, being in Britain "is no better than being in prison", he says.

"I've understood another aspect of human behaviour since arriving here: hypocrisy. They show you a kind face, but at bottom they don't really want to help."

In fact, he has not done badly. He arrived without a word of English: now he is practically fluent, and is reading copiously in English, too. The Refugee Support Centre, which counsels asylum-seekers with emotional and mental problems, has helped him to overcome the worst of his trauma and anxiety. But he resents the limbo in which he finds himself, when his claim to asylum is about as strong as it is possible to imagine.

In 1990, nearly a quarter of asylum-seekers were granted refugee status and fewer than 20 per cent were refused outright. Now, nearly 80 per cent are turned down and only 3.9 per cent are granted refugee status.

This inversion does not reflect the realities in the outside world. Rather it reflects the Home Office's desire to bring asylum policy into line with the harder practice of other European Union countries. Fraudulent asylum-seekers exist: five were jailed last month, for terms up to 30 months. But the numerous wars around the world mean that the flow of genuine refugees is probably heavier today than at any time in the post-war period. The provisions that the Asylum and Immigration Bill will put in place - the so-called "white list" of countries not expected to produce genuine refugees, fast-track appeals, the right to bounce would-be applicants back to a "safe third country" - are an attempt to staunch that flow.

Last Friday in the Times, the political commentator Bruce Anderson argued that the notion of political asylum is out of date. "At a guess, at least 100 million people would now meet the Geneva Convention criteria for asylum," he wrote. "... The 100 million are deserving cases [but] confronted by the legion of potential applicants we have to harden our hearts in the generality of cases."

Mr Anderson proposes abandoning the pretence of offering asylum except in very special cases - for example, the case of "the man who tried to hold up the tanks in Peking with a policeman's hand signals".

The advantage of Mr Anderson's proposal is honesty; the drawback for Mr X is that it would have resulted in his being sent straight back to Zaire, probably to his death. If his wife and children had followed him to London, the same would have befallen them.

The Government's present stance is a squalid fudge which the new Bill does nothing to improve. But whether the British public is ready to have the deaths of Mr X and thousands like him on their conscience is another matter.