FAITH LEADERS are urging the Scottish Government to provide free bus passes for asylum seekers. The Scottish Religious Leaders Forum say that extending schemes already in place for people aged 5-22 and 60 plus would be a humane, just and life changing response to help one of the most disadvantaged and isolated groups in society who have experienced “unimaginable suffering”.

There are approximately 5,000 asylum seekers in Scotland. An asylum seeker is a person who has asked the Home Office to recognise their refugee status and is waiting to hear the outcome of their application.

They are not permitted to work during this time, some receive an allowance of around £40 a week and being unable to travel severely limits their ability to access essential services like food, education, medical appointments and places of worship.

The Rt Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, is among 24 religious leaders who have signed a statement in support of a campaign spearheaded by The Maryhill Integration Network  in Glasgow. They argue that free bus travel would be “positively life-changing and mentally transformative for those otherwise stuck in an inadequate and slow asylum system”.

Backed by the Church of Scotland-led Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees group, the Scottish Religious Leaders Forum also maintain that it would “foster two-way integration and help build stronger and more resilient communities.”

Abiola, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who has lived in Glasgow for five years, said: “Having a bus pass would be of great benefit to me and other asylum seekers in so many ways, particularly for our mental health. Our wellbeing would improve a lot and life would be easier because we are very restricted because tickets are very expensive and we are living on a tight budget.

“If I had a bus pass it would help me to move around more freely, accompany my son on the bus as he has a pass and when I am lonely I can go out and explore and take my mind off whatever I am thinking. All we want is to live a happier life and feel like we belong. The restrictions and limitations placed on asylum seekers make us feel like we are prisoners.”

Linsay Taylor, chair of Interfaith Scotland, said: “Unfortunately, we live in a time where individuals who are seeking to exercise a most basic international right, that of seeking asylum, are being met with an increasingly hostile environment. This should be a cause for concern for us all and that is why Interfaith Scotland supports the call for free bus passes for those asylum seekers.

“Having access to a free bus pass will allow individuals to more easily interact with much-needed support, and community, as well as practise their faith by having much easier access to places of worship. Something that so many of us take for granted but which at this time is often inaccessible due to the cost of travel.”

The Maryhill Integration Network (MIN) says the choice of buying a day bus ticket in Glasgow can leave a person seeking asylum with just over £1 for food and any other essentials that day – just enough to buy a carton of milk.

Pinar Aksu, Human Rights and Advocacy Coordinator at MIN, said: “Access to concessionary bus travel is viewed by us as a key social justice policy. We know it will move asylum seekers as a group so much closer to integration in our communities.”

MIN, and a group called the Voices Network, have lodged a new petition at the Scottish Parliament which calls on MSPs to urge the Scottish Government to extend the current Concessionary Travel Scheme to include all people seeking asylum in Scotland, regardless of age.

Rosie Burrell of Interfaith Glasgow leads a programme called the Weekend Club which helps tackle the isolation experienced by many people in the asylum system. “Making travel free for asylum seekers would enable us to deliver more support to Glasgow’s asylum seekers while significantly reducing isolation and the harm it causes by enabling newcomers to access further support and opportunities, build more social connections, and feel part of society”, she said.

“If we want Scotland to be a place of sanctuary for people who have fled situations of unimaginable suffering, it really is the least we can do.”

* Read the full statement signed by faith leaders here.

* The petition to the Scottish Parliament is here.

* Source: Church of Scotland