PPR regularly organises alongside asylum seekers keen to claim their rights in a system which allocates people only £9.58 per week to meet their basic needs, and no possibility of paid employment, at least in the first period of their claim.
Challenging for anyone, but a complete nightmare for those who have children, health needs or disabilities and need to pay for a trip to the chemist, the GP surgery, or the local hospital. Children need to get to school, teenagers need to get to college, people need to go to English classes, people need to attend interviews with the Home Office and their solicitor. The list goes on. Asylum seekers can find their paltry income consumed by just one or two bus tickets, severely limiting choices and welfare.
Kind Economy human rights defenders living in contingency accommodation have been documenting the impacts of the hostile environment and providing regular reports to the relevant authorities and oversight bodies. These reports and formal complaints have repeatedly documented the harm asylum seekers experience without access to transport.
For example, recently one family PPR has been working with had a member admitted to intensive care due to severe illness. The family could not afford to pay the bus fares to visit. Imagine worrying for the life of your child and being too poor to get to the hospital.
The activists fighting for Homes Not Hotels, to Lift the Ban on employment and the Kind Economy campaigns have long advocated for the importance of providing free bus travel for asylum seekers and their families, to enable access to essential services and the integration of people seeking safety into their new environments. They and PPR were delighted then, to see that the Department for Infrastructure has proposed the option of including asylum seekers among the groups of people eligible for a free bus transport ‘SmartPass’.
At present there are around 3,000 people seeking asylum in Northern Ireland. A basic ballpark calculation, using data provided by the DfI itself, suggests that this is unlikely to cost more than around £375,000 per year in a budget envelope of almost £45m (assuming a spend of around £125/per person per year, the upper level of per head costs for older people).
Asylum seekers we work with describe the potential provision of bus cards as “life-changing.” However, their delight turned to dismay, at one suggestion of the Department to remove free bus pass travel for those age 60-64, affecting more than 70,000 older people across Northern Ireland. Like asylum seekers, many older people are completely reliant on their bus pass for access to services, shops and essential appointments, as well as activities that support health and well-being and reduce social isolation. Asylum seeker communities know and understand only too well the value that free bus travel brings to older people.
Why take this step then? According to the DfI consultation, they ‘need to consider how we can ensure the [SmartPass] Scheme is financially sustainable and continues to be available for future generations. With this in mind, we have looked at the Scheme to identify changes to the current eligibility criteria which could reduce the costs of the Scheme while ensuring it continues to be targeted on those who are most vulnerable, or liable, to social exclusion.’
There is no doubt that the UK Government’s recent budget for Northern Ireland creates huge difficulties in supporting social justice - but nor can this be delivered by Departments trading off groups of people in legitimate need against each other.
Climate collapse and the need to reduce emissions to net zero in reality rather than on paper makes the role and funding of public transport more, not less, essential; we should be moving to subsidise all people to get out of their cars and upping the public transport budget and network, rather than penny pinching at the edges. There is no doubt that asylum seekers stand in solidarity with older people and against climate change – which will continue to drive up food prices, create conflict over scarcity and drive people away from their homes. In that context, there are enough bus passes for everyone.