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MSPs back free bus travel scheme for asylum seekers – BBC News

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Image caption, Anne Duncan has given evidence to a Holyrood committee which has made recommendations to improve the asylum system

Free bus travel for people in the asylum system will help prevent them from having to choose between eating or taking medicine, ministers have heard.

Anne Duncan, who came to the UK from Kenya six years ago, told BBC Scotland she was forced to make such choices daily while on UK government benefits.

MSPs have made recommendations to improve the system in Scotland.

The equalities, human rights and civil justice committee called for Holyrood to sanction concessionary bus travel.

It also demanded urgent clarity on whether unaccompanied children seeking asylum had been placed in hotels in Scotland.

The Scottish government said the UK asylum system was failing but that it was working to provide mitigations.

The UK government said it was working with local authorities across the UK to address concerns. It is expected to confirm plans to end the use of 50 hotels to house migrants by January.

People in the asylum system are unable to work under UK employment law. Westminster provides £47.39 per week for people in uncatered accommodation, while those in hotels get just £9.58 per week.

Anne, who gave evidence to the equalities committee, told BBC Scotland News: “This is such a small amount of money that you end up choosing between going to see your solicitor or sleeping hungry sometimes.

“Or maybe sometimes buying painkillers or having a breakfast.”

She added that there was a “lack of privacy and dignity” in housing provided by private subcontractors.

Anne said free bus travel would help stave off isolation for people in the asylum system, allowing them to more easily attend GPs, solicitors, language lessons and volunteering projects.

Image caption, Aymen Alkhawlani says he had to choose between buying a bus ticket and eating

Aymen Alkhawlani, from Yemen, arrived in the UK in April 2021 and spent about 18 months in the asylum system before being granted leave to remain.

He said spending a year in a hotel in Falkirk was “one of the most difficult experiences that I’ve ever come through”.

“When I got to the UK I thought that it would be doing things like working, studying, would be living a decent life,” Aymen told BBC Scotland News.

“But I was in a hotel. Some people think that it’s kind of cool to be living in a hotel, like it’s a luxury.

“It is not. You just eat and sleep, do nothing.”

He said that after being moved to accommodation in Airdrie, he had to choose between buying a bus ticket and eating some days.

Aymen, who also spoke to the equalities committee, said that as well as free bus travel, improved interpreter services and better access to language classes would be beneficial for people in the asylum system.

Immigration and employment law is reserved to Westminster but the equalities committee called on local authorities and the Scottish government to use “the full extent of their powers”.

In a report, MSPs said they were “deeply concerned” that the practice of housing asylum seekers in hotels was becoming more frequent and for longer periods of time.

They heard of the case of a woman and her two young children who spent eight months in a hotel – with the children becoming unwell because of a lack of fresh, nutritious food.

In June, more than 600 migrants in Scotland were living in hotels, but the committee report made clear that using such forms of “institutional accommodation are inappropriate”.

The committee said councils had told them that there were no unaccompanied children living in hotels in Scotland. But they warned that this conflicted with the evidence heard from the charity JustRight Scotland, with the committee “frustrated” that it was not able to get a clear answer.

MSPs raised concerns about the impact the UK government’s Illegal Migration Act will have on unaccompanied children, saying the legislation includes a power to remove them from their local authority areas.

They agreed that extending free bus travel to all asylum seekers would be “transformative”, with the committee calling on the Scottish government to develop a plan for a Scotland-wide rollout of such a scheme before the end of this parliamentary session.

This should be based on analysis from pilot, free-travel schemes that have operated in both Aberdeen and Glasgow, the report said.

Committee convenor Kaukab Stewart said MSPS were unable to “get to the bottom” of reports of unaccompanied children being placed in hotels.

“So that’s one of the reasons why we’re urging the Scottish government to find out exactly how many unaccompanied children there are in Scotland,” she told BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme. “It is quite concerning.”

In August, the number of asylum seekers having their application processed reached a record high of 175,000 people.

Image caption, Savan Qadir, project manager at Refugees for Justice, says people in the asylum system should be allowed to work

Savan Qadir, project manager at Refugees for Justice, said the backlog had left people “in limbo for years”.

He told BBC Scotland News the asylum system should be rebuilt “from scratch”, starting with giving people the right to work.

“The system is broken and it has been broken for a very long time,” he said.

“Giving people the right to work, not only would it benefit the individuals, it would also save the government huge sums of money.

“They would be able to rent houses themselves and they would be able to provide for themselves and their families. But it would also give them the independence and dignity or earning and living.”

‘Acute pressures’

Migration Minister Emma Roddick said the UK immigration system was failing, with asylum claimants left in “limbo” due to Westminster “mismanagement”.

She said the Scottish government was committed to helping people in the asylum system despite “acute pressures” caused by the Home Office backlog on housing and social work services.

“We are working with the Home Office, Cosla and partners to provide the safety and security young asylum seekers need to rebuild their lives, and with stakeholders to develop mitigations against the UK government asylum policies, including the Illegal Migration Act, within our devolved powers and budget,” she added.

“This report highlights that only independence will allow Scotland to create an asylum and immigration system that is fit for purpose and based on Scotland’s needs.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “A recent High Court judgment upheld that local authorities have a statutory duty to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

“We have always maintained that the best place for unaccompanied children to be accommodated is within a local authority.”

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