Financial Rights

Banking on Refugees

syrian family opens bank account source Inflation source dpa Friso Gentsch .jpg
A Syrian family opening a new bank account.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A new law, requiring banks to offer basic payment accounts to all consumers, comes into effect this summer. Meanwhile, German savings banks and private are split on how they are responding to the stream of newcomers wanting to register.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Savings banks are making it relatively easy for refugees to open accounts.
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    • The 409 member banks of the Sparkasse network throughout Germany have already opened more than 100,000 refugee accounts.
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    • Some banks justify their restraint with concerns over funding for terrorism and money laundering.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Opening a bank account in a new country can be a bureaucratic nightmare but Berliner Sparkasse, a savings bank in the German capital, decided to make it easy for refugees to open bank accounts.

“We posted leaflets in refugee hostels in German, English and Arabic, stating that refugees could open accounts with the Sparkasse,” said company spokesman Frank Weidner. The bank also made sure that these two languages are spoken at special branches in the West Berlin neighborhoods of Lichtenberg and Wilmersdorf, where, many refugees have been placed.

The two centers are proving hugely popular, and open around 150 new accounts a day.

“We currently have 13,000 accounts, about half of them held by Syrians,” said Mr. Weidner.  Outside Berlin, in the city of Bielefeld, the local savings banks has also opened a special branch for  refugees to open an account. The bank has already opened more than 2,000 new accounts..

The 409 member banks of the Sparkasse network throughout Germany have already opened more than 100,000 refugee accounts, Georg Fahrenschon, president of the German Savings Banks Association, said in a conversation with Handelsblatt. In this context, he added, he had asked for “a greater commitment from some competitors” and appealed to the industry’s “responsibility within society as a whole.”

Now the competitors he criticized have spoken up. The industry group, the Association of German Banks, acknowledges that access to financial services is vital for successful integration, but says there are complications with allowing newcomers to open bank accounts. In particular many banks fear that their social responsibility conflicts with legal requirements to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism.

The large number of refugees arriving in Germany has highlighted a problem with a new European Union directive that means  all financial institutions are required to establish a payment account or basic account for every consumer.

The financial committee will adopt this law next Wednesday. Banks are struggling to  ascertain the identity of refugees when they open accounts, so the  Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, or BaFin, has relaxed identification requirements. Refugees who lack passports can use registration certificates to open accounts, at least temporarily.

According to a spokeswoman, the German Finance Ministry is currently determining which additional documents are both suitable for verifying identity and meet the requirements of the Money Laundering Act. The Interior Ministry has taken the lead in drafting this “Identity verification regulation,” which it will issue in cooperation with the Finance Ministry. Talks are currently underway between the two ministries.

Several banks say they fear someone posing as a refugee could open an account in Germany and use it to fund terrorist attacks.

 

Meanwhile, the savings banks are taking a pragmatic approach. At Berliner Sparkasse, refugees without a passport can open an account with a residence permit and a police registration document. But the Association of German banks warns that there is no guarantee that foreign law enforcement agencies will accept BaFin’s temporary softening of regulations as binding. Several banks say they fear someone posing as a refugee could open an account in Germany and use it to fund terrorist attacks.

This is a conflict that is unlikely to disappear right away. If this suspicion proves to be true, private banks with activities abroad could potentially face sanctions. For instance, Commerzbank has already come under fire for sanctions violations in Iran.

Chief Executive Martin Blessing was unbending at his bank’s press briefing on annual results, saying no one could open a bank account with Commerzbank without a valid identificaiton document. He added: “It is completely clear that we are not just required to comply with German legal obligations, but also international compliance and money laundering regulations.”

Sarah Ryglewski, a financial expert with the center-left Social Democratic Party, which backs the law requiring all banks to provide basic accounts, says there is no reason all banks cannot make it easier for refugees to open accounts. She suspects that this is the banks’ way of shielding themselves from unwanted customers.

While a number of other large savings banks, in addition to Berliner, have opened many refugee accounts, no figures are available for other banks. For instance, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and the two largest Volksbank cooperative banks, Berliner and Frankfurter Volksbank, have opened accounts for refugees but are not providing any data.

Deutsche Bank points out that when it opens refugee accounts, it must satisfy international requirements for the identification of customers. “This includes, among other things, clear identification in the form of suitable identification documents.”

 

Elisabeth Atzler is Handelsblatt’s banking correspondent. . Frank Drost is a Handelsblatt Editor in Berlin, covering financial supervision and banks.To contact the author: atzler@handelsblatt.com and drost@handelsblatt.com

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