HSBC closes Syrian bank accounts

Bank accused of discriminating between refugees and wealthier clients, reports Ian O'Brien

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A campaign highlighting the closure of Syrian customers’ bank accounts has accused HSBC of “hypocrisy and double standards” after revelations that it helped wealthy clients avoid millions in tax.

Syrian community organisation Rethink Rebuild Society, in partnership with the Manchester-based Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research group (RAPAR), started the campaign after banks including RBS, NatWest and Barclays began closing the accounts of students, refugees, asylum seekers and skilled migrant workers.

Joint campaign co-ordinator Yasmine Nahlawi, said: “It is completely outrageous that HSBC has been systematically targeting its Syrian customers and abusing its powers over them while, at the same time, helping its wealthiest customers evade their tax obligations.”

Documents obtained by The Independent last year found that HSBC, among the most prolific in closing accounts, cited “increased requirements for compliance with international obligations concerning payments to and from sanctioned countries”.

Former HSBC customers have since come forward stating they had never transferred funds to or from Syria.

Nahlawi, one of the first affected by the policy, added: “This contradiction, whereby HSBC refuses to maintain accounts for members of the Syrian community but is willing to engage in illegal activity for the benefit of its ‘elite’ customers suggests that money, rather than compliance with regulations, is driving HSBC’s internal policies.”

Although HSBC and other banks sometimes give notice that an account is to be closed it is not always the case, with many customers only discovering the closure when ATM machines refused to return their card.

Changing bank accounts can be time consuming and problematic under normal circumstances but for those with refugee status it can be a far more difficult proposition.

A 2014 report by the Refugee Council indicates that some banks will not accept biometric, residence permits or immigration documents as proof of identity, despite these being listed as valid in guidance notes.

One Syrian refugee told the campaign: “My account was just closed out of nowhere. I went to the bank to ask them what the issue was. They said they sent me a letter in the mail, and they printed it for me while I was there. I never got that letter.”

The person, who is not named, went on to say: “It was extremely difficult for me to open another bank account. For example, Lloyds told me that I couldn’t open an account with refugee status as I needed a passport, which I don’t have because I am a refugee.”

As well as individuals there have also been cases of UK-registered charities being targeted by HSBC.

Photo of Damascus: Elizabeth Arrott

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