Asylum seekers are being excluded from the financial system in Ireland, unable to open basic accounts with some of the biggest banks in the country.
That’s according to two asylum seekers, and an NGO which advocates for migrants and refugees, which has accused the banks of breaching an EU directive with their actions.
One asylum seeker from Africa told Euronews she and others have been forced to work illegally - cash in hand - despite having permission to work in the country, because they couldn’t open a bank account.
Nasc, an Irish NGO for migrant rights, has been working to rectify the situation, which it claims is a breach of EU regulations.
‘’In our experience asylum seekers are still struggling to open bank accounts. They have been asked to produce passports, for example,’’ said Fiona Finn, the NGO’s CEO.
Many times banks ask for a passport before allowing someone to open an account, but often asylum seekers won’t have a passport, and if they do have one then the government will likely take it while they are looking at their claim for asylum, Finn said.
It has been working with a number of refugees who in recent months have been rejected from opening bank accounts - something Finn says is something everybody needs “to be able to function in society”.
Rejected in one branch, accepted in another
One asylum seeker, who is stateless, told Euronews he was ejected from the Bank of Ireland in the city of Limerick, by an employee who refused to open an account for him.
The employee told him that they accept only passports or a travel document that is stamped by the immigration department for refugees, or a driving licence.
He had a residency ID obtained from the police immigration office through the Department of Justice (DOJE), which is for those that have been approved for asylum, or non-EU workers with full-time contracts in Ireland.
The next day he went with the same documents to another branch of the same bank and they allowed him to open the account.
A spokesperson for Bank of Ireland told Euronews they have tailored their current account documentation requirements so it does not exclude customers such as asylum seekers from the financial system. Where a customer is unable to provide the traditional anti-money laundry documentation required, travel documentation issued by the DOJE can be used.
A spokesman for the Central Bank of Ireland (CBI) said regulation 15 of the EU directive on payment accounts provides that accounts with basic features shall be made available to consumers by all relevant credit institutions, and that the opening and use of an account with basic features shall be in accordance with the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act of 2010.
"A consumer who is legally resident in the EU shall have the right to open and use a payment account with basic features without undue difficulty with regards of place of residence and whether he/she has a fixed address or an asylum seeker or a consumer who has not been granted residence permit but whose expulsion is not possible for legal or practical reasons," the spokesman added.
Euronews sent Bank of Ireland the response of the CBI and the claims of the customer.
The bank said all its policies and procedures are in line with the requirements set out by the EU and a social and financial inclusion policy ensures opening accounts to all customers who aren’t able to provide non-standard documentation such as asylum seekers.
"We have tailored our current account documentation requirements so it does not exclude any customers from the financial system," BOI spokesman said.
BOI didn’t respond directly about the claims from the asylum seeker, directing them to its website for a complaint form.
Bank accounts essential in COVID times
An Arabic asylum seeker, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Euronews that it's essential to have a bank account since a lot of shops are closed due to the lockdown and relying on online shopping.
She went many times to different banks and every time they asked for different documentation, until the final stage which was permission to work.
"When I went with my work permission they told me to come back when I started my work then I felt it’s impossible to achieve that goal and I just left," she said.
Sedik Hadad is a Syrian asylum seeker. He told Euronews that he needs to open a bank account since it’s not safe in lockdown to deal physically with cash.
He, therefore, tried to open a bank account at Ulster Bank and another bank and he was told by the front desk staff that he couldn’t do so.
Hadad claims that he was told by both banks that he should have a passport or EU driving license to be able to open a bank account.
He has a Public Services card issued by the Irish government and a photocopy of his passport and a Saudi driving license.
While the DOJE told Euronews - like the Bank of Ireland - that asylum seekers have the right to open and use payment accounts with basic features without undue difficulty, regulations state that the opening and use of such accounts should be in accordance with the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act 2010.
The documents that are presented by asylum seekers in some bank branches aren't accepted, on the basis of this legislation, and this appears to be due to individual employees not knowing that the documents are in fact sufficient to open an account.
The EU directive in question states: "Member States shall ensure that consumers legally resident in the Union, including consumers with no fixed address and asylum seekers, and consumers who are not granted a residence permit but whose expulsion is impossible for legal or factual reasons, have the right to open and use a payment account with basic features with credit institutions located in their territory. Such a right shall apply irrespective of the consumer’s place of residence."
The DOJE said it is currently examining the issue and engaging with the relevant stakeholders, including the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland.
"This is with a view to achieving an early resolution with due regard to both national and EU legislative requirements," a DOJE spokesman added.