5 December 2012

Africa: Asylum Seekers Struggle As FNB Freezes Their Accounts

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
Zimbabwe asylum seekers queue outside the home affairs in Musina (file photo).

Cape Town — Asylum seekers in Cape Town are struggling because their First National Bank (FNB) accounts have been frozen. The bank insists on seeing unexpired asylum documents every three to six months to keep bank accounts active.

Many asylum seekers have to wait up to six months for their documents to be approved by Home Affairs and end up not being able to provide the documents FNB insists upon.

A Liberian national who wants to remain anonymous said that his account has been frozen for over two months now. He is disgruntled because he discovered that his account was no longer active when a supermarket transaction failed. He said that he would have appreciated if FNB had notified him before they had frozen his bank account. He has been to the Home Affairs' Refugee Centre in Cape Town several times but has been unable to get approval for his asylum documents.

He does not understand why asylum documents should be verified every time they are renewed when they were already verified when they opened the bank accounts. He said that one of his friends who obtained his asylum papers in Pretoria was told to go back to Pretoria for renewal and verification. The friend's dilemma is finding the money to go to Pretoria when his bank account has been frozen.

The Liberian national told GroundUp that when asylum seekers finally get a response from Home Affairs, often their asylum documents will be about to expire again. This means their bank accounts are re-activated for only a short time when they face the same problem again.

He said, "If I had the money, I would take this bank to court. Maybe an NGO would like to foot the bill because it's a good case. This is happening to a lot of people. The bank know what they are doing. They are taking advantage of vulnerable people and then they can't access their money."

Anthony Muteti of immigrants rights organisation PASSOP said the situation would be better if the Department of Home Affairs specifically employed people to deal with the authentication of asylum documents.

Tendai Masamba is from Zimbabwe. He approached PASSOP last week for assistance with his frozen FNB account. Masamba says that his account was frozen in October this year when his bank balance was R38,000. Since then, two months' salary have been paid into the account. His balance currently stands at R50,000. The company he is working for will not accept a third party account number and he is worried his bonus will also be paid into the frozen account in a few weeks time.

In response, the Department of Home Affairs Communication Services told GroundUp that if they had the names of the people experiencing this problem, they would be able to check to see if these people had applied for asylum. This would allow the department to be able to tell what could have caused the delay in their specific cases and assess whether there is anything they could do to help them. However, most of the people who were interviewed by GroundUp were scared and did not want their names to be revealed to Home Affairs.

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Lawyers for Human Rights said, "The Department of Home Affairs is not providing a solution to the problem.

Merely asking for the names of the affected persons is not dealing with the problem."

Some of the people GroundUp interviewed also accused FNB of keeping money when an asylum seeker is deported or dies, instead of paying it to relatives.

In response to these allegations, Steve Higgins of FNB Corporate Communications said, "FNB continues to offer accounts to asylum seekers and refugees holding red identity documents. But due to the temporary nature of the permit, FNB is required to maintain current customer records by SA legislation."

According to the bank, customers with temporary identity documents must provide the bank with valid documents to make transactions. This is demanded by the Financial Intelligence Centre Act 28 of 2001 (FICA).

Under FICA, this must be explained to customers when they open an account. But when asylum documents expire, so does the verification of the customer's identity. Higgins explained that account holders, whether deported or dead, can get the funds they have placed with FNB if they providing correct documentation. However funds are only available to account holders, or a person who has been authorised by the account holder via a power of attorney. The power of attorney is a formal contract signed between the bank and the account holder.

Ramjathan-Keogh said, "The banks are unable to permit asylum seekers to open or operate their accounts because Home Affairs is unable to verify the authenticity of the permits which they issue. This is a serious problem which is infringing on the rights of migrants to economic freedom. Asylum seeker permits are valid for a short period of time and require to be renewed with regularity by Home Affairs. Surely there is a more effective means of assisting asylum seekers and refugees to be able to safely operate bank accounts as opposed to this constant freezing of accounts as is the case at the moment? Surely, it is unconscionable that a bank can refuse to give an account holder access to his/her funds due to some administrative failure on the part of Home Affairs?"

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