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‘Asking for the impossible’ – opening a bank account a source of frustration for Direct Provision residents

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*Innocent Iroaganachi. Photograph: John Mangan

No clear procedure exists for Direct Provision residents in setting up a bank account, it has proved to be a financial difficulty for many including Ennis’ Innocent Iroaganachi during COVID-19.

“You ought to have a reason for opening an account,” said a bank official to an asylum seeker requesting to open an account. Is the official forgetting that some asylum seekers, especially the unemployed are capable of saving a little, from the weekly stipend of 38.80 Euros which the State offers? Saving is a very important part of human life. Most asylum seekers in Ireland live in accommodations (direct provision – DP) where they share rooms, and many would not tolerate being accused of stealing the money of a fellow roommate, when it can be avoided by saving same in the bank.

Also many asylum seekers, who had to make essential cross-county travels, continuously face the situation of paying more, because they have no bank account to enable online booking of bus or train tickets, which are usually cheaper.

Meanwhile, online purchases, booking travel tickets, paying/subscribing for online services like news outlets, topping-up the phones and internet data subscriptions, include among the many reasons which justify why asylum seekers need a bank account, especially in Ireland, a European nation that has largely gone digital. More than ever, having a bank account is important, especially in this era of Covid-19 pandemic, where health experts are strongly advising people to avoid direct contact with surfaces, like cash. In other words, having a bank card which comes with an account, is a way of minimising coming in contact with infected surfaces.

Inquiries have shown that there is no clear procedure, particular to asylum seekers opening an account, especially if they are not employed. Some have been told by bank officials to get a job first before opening an account. On one hand, some (unemployed) asylum seekers who have succeeded in opening an account, make reference to the compassion of certain bank officials that were approached, who assisted without reservation. On the other hand, a number of bank officials diplomatically and systematically dismiss them. Such inconsistent approach prompt a feeling that having a bank account by asylum seekers in Ireland is somewhat unlawful.

Particular among the demands made of asylum seekers by banks, for account opening include, provision of the following documentations: a work permit, birth certificate, public services card (PPS), temporary residence card (TRC), age card, a self-addressed letter from any government agency; as well as letters from the social welfare office, the management of the accommodation centre, and the employer (if employed), and even utility bills (those in DP do not pay for utilities).

In a personal conversation, a bank official went further to suggest the provision of a photo identification from country of origin (of which the original of this document is usually in the custody of the International Protection Office – IPO). It might interest you to know that even after providing originals and copies of most of the requested documentations, many asylum seekers still do not succeed. Could it be that the policy makers of banking institutions in Ireland are not aware of these unfair treatment?

A bank official once suggested to an asylum seeker to approach the Social Welfare Office and request that the welfare payment be moved from the post office to the bank. Are bank officials not aware that asylum seekers must on stipulated days, claim their welfare payment from the post office, and failure to do so, the unclaimed payment will be reverted to the State? Even some have also complained that similar demands were also made of them, when the wanted to open an account with the An Post. On one occasion, an asylum seeker residing in Miltown Malbay said to me he politely told the bank official, “You are asking me for the impossible.”

As a result of some exceptions, it may not be entirely right to categorise as discriminatory or racist, the systematic dismissal of asylum seekers requesting to open an account by some bank officials, through multitudes of hard-to-get documentations. This is because there have been situations, where unemployed asylum seekers have succeeded in opening accounts, although not without each person, having to recount series of rejections they had to endure. Giving the banks and their officials the benefit of doubt, maybe there is yet to be a consistent policy guideline on particular identifications they ought to admit from asylum seekers. They should not make it look as if, some sort of legislation is needed from the Houses of the Oireachtas before they can allow asylum seekers open a bank account.

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