Refugees trapped in bureaucracy trying to open a bank account

Banks must do more to help refugees and asylum seekers


While watching television today I noticed an advertisement about the difficulty of switching bank accounts in the UK. It made me think about my experience of opening my first account here. I approached the bank with my German passport, national insurance number, a utility bill and employment contract.

Not everyone has these documents though, and for newly granted refugees, opening a bank account can be one of the most frustrating and difficult things to do upon being granted leave to remain.

Many of the clients I work with as a project coordinator at the Refugee Council’s New Refugees Advice Project, come to the UK without any valid form of identification. They must therefore rely on institutions like banks to recognise their government issued Biometrics Residence Permits (BRP) as valid forms of identification. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

While a few high street banks publish information on their websites stating that the BRP is a valid and accepted form of ID for refugees, most tellers won’t recognise it. People are turned away and often told that they should get a passport or a UK driving licence and try again.

If they do not know better they usually try to obtain these documents. Getting a travel document is expensive so people will usually opt to go to a different bank or get a driving licence. The trouble is that they are required to send in their BRP’s in order to get the licence, which leaves them without any form of identification at all. It also places a financial burden on those who already survive from so little.

The other major impediments to opening a bank account are proof of address and income. Asylum seekers are initially supported through the UK’s Asylum Support system and if needed are provided with modest accommodation and support while their claims are being decided. Upon receiving a positive decision, people are given only 28 days to move on from Asylum Support and accommodation onto mainstream support or into employment and to find themselves safe and affordable accommodation.

It is crucial to obtain a bank account in this time in order to access employment and welfare. However banks often do not understand the housing history of refugees and are unwilling to open accounts without tenancy agreements or proof of utilities bills and income.

Banks could do a lot to recognise their role in potentially mitigating destitution experienced by newly granted refugees. If banks recognized that refugees are in a unique position in holding only a BRP as identification, that they are unlikely to have a fixed a address within their 28 day move on period and will therefore be providing information about their asylum accommodation, and would be allowed to show their eligibility for benefits, which may perhaps include proof they had been to the job centre, it would go a long way.

As many of my clients have described, access to things like bank accounts make them feel normal, like they have a chance to be a part of something they have wanted for so long; a sense of security and belonging.

A small step from major financial institutions could mean a great deal to these incredibly courageous and resilient people.

Josephine Basedow is project coordinator at the Refugee Council‘s New Refugees Advice Project 

7 Responses to “Refugees trapped in bureaucracy trying to open a bank account”

  1. Refugee Council welcomes fresh research into move-on period for new refugees - Refugee Council

    […] Considering the significant barriers newly recognised refugees face to open a bank account – as we have written about before – it is clear that receiving advance payments is not a realistic option for new […]

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