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Missed dental appointments and hours-long freezing walks: Why asylum seekers need free bus travel

Campaigners are pushing Sadiq Khan to introduce free bus travel for asylum seekers

asylum seekers

Khadija Ahmed said free bus travel would have improved her life during the two years she waited for an asylum decision. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Khadija Ahmed waited two years, three months and 11 days to be granted refugee status. As she waited, living in an asylum hotel, she found herself having to ration travel. During Ramadan, her and her children walked for almost an hour to their mosque while fasting and she missed dentists appointments as they were simply too far.

“When I was an asylum seeker, it was really difficult, because you are getting only £8 per week. The bus fare is not affordable,” Ahmed said.

She spoke outside London’s City Hall, as dozens of protesters and campaigners came together to urge mayor Sadiq Khan to follow Scotland and Northern Ireland’s lead and give asylum seekers free bus travel.

Organised by Citizens UK and groups across London, they say the allowance given to asylum seekers waiting for a decision restricts their ability to travel and integrate.

The common London allowance means asylum seekers can make just two return bus trips every week. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

The vast majority of asylum seekers are not allowed to work while the Home Office decides their status, and so are reliant on an allowance that has recently been reduced. But with the common allowance for asylum seekers £8.86 a week, and bus fares in London £1.75, they are limited on what they can do – and in reality, the essential services they can access. The daily cap on journeys in zones one and two – the maximum charged for unlimited journeys within 24 hours – is £8.10.

Kurdo (not his real name) had his appendix flare up while he was in an asylum hotel and had to wait hours for an ambulance. Had he been able to afford transport, he would have been able to get to hospital quicker, he said: “I was spinning on my head, this means I had the strongest pain ever.”

Along with this, he found getting to college to take up English courses has been a struggle.

“It’s not easy to go two, three times to college, to get back,” he said. “How can you afford that when we get a little amount of money every week?”

Deputy mayor Seb Dance spoke with the protesters outside City Hall. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

A report by Helen Bamber Foundation in October 2023 found clients were struggling to attend important meetings because of the cost of transport, and that free transport would allow them to live their lives with more freedom and dignity.

A patchwork of grants and support available – for education, disabilities, and those with complex needs – is often, in practice, not accessed by asylum seekers.

In November 2023, the Scottish government introduced free bus travel for asylum seekers at a cost of £2m. Holding banners and placards, and singing songs, the protesters urged Sadiq Khan to do the same.

Roxana missed “many appointments” while waiting for refugee status, thanks to a lack of money. 

“When I tried to go to any appointments, or any training, it’s so expensive nowadays,” she said. Sometimes I think about going on foot for a long time, and in this cold weather it’s very very difficult”

Zarith, a newly recognised refugee from south-east Asia, said he had witnessed how a lack of affordable transport impacted trans and LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.

“We have trans people who need more medical help, and I could not even imagine how they would get around,” he said. . 

Iif this campaign is successful, it could make them realise they can still go around, see friends, and get the services they need, whether it’s financial, legal, social, or inclusion.

“London can be the glimmer of hope – it can set a precedent for other cities. Other cities can follow suit to give that compassion”.

A spokesperson for the mayor told The Big Issue: “The deputy mayor spoke with the campaign this morning and has offered a meeting to talk about the concerns of asylum seekers. The mayor and deputy mayor are always keen to explore what can be done to help vulnerable people in London, including those seeking asylum.

“Currently, asylum seekers can apply, where eligible, for existing TfL concessions, and those who need help completing their online applications can also contact TfL’s customer services to get further assistance.”

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