MPs to hold HSBC to account after Syrian customers are turned away

Labour MP John Mann said that ‘HSBC has a lot of questions to answer’ and described its behaviour as ‘outrageous’

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The Independent Online

MPs may submit a formal request to grill HSBC in Parliament after The Independent revealed that it  has closed accounts belonging to Syrian refugees in the UK, sparking accusations of discrimination by ethnicity at the British banking giant.

Documents obtained by The Independent showed that HSBC sent out letters to Syrian clients, most of them refugees and students with no history of suspicious activity, citing “increased compliance with international obligations concerning payments to and from sanctioned countries”.

The Labour MP John Mann, who sits on the influential Treasury Select Committee, told The Independent: “HSBC has a lot of questions to answer. This is a cheap, nasty way of pretending to comply with international sanctions.

“It’s outrageous for a British bank to turn down a customer based on his country of origin. HSBC is going after the victims, not the aggressors. These people are fleeing Syria fearing for their lives.”

The letters claimed the abrupt decision to terminate their accounts did not reflect the manner in which they had conducted their business, arguing instead that HSBC had responded to an internal assessment of risk, without providing further details as to what the process entailed.

The customers were given two months to find a new bank and many were left in limbo, struggling to open an account elsewhere given their refugee status in the UK.

Syria has been subject to sanctions from the European Union, the United States and the Arab League, since the civil war began more than three years ago.

Last year HSBC announced it would close the accounts of some of its Syrian clients in the Middle East and North Africa to comply with “enhanced oversight on any customer with connections to sanctioned countries”. However, the bank is yet to announce a formal extension of the policy to clients in Europe.

The latest allegations of discrimination against HSBC come after a number of Muslim organisations, including the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, accused the bank of taking part in an “Islamophobic campaign” last month.

HSBC has consistently denied that religion or race plays a part when it comes to ending a customer account, adding that it makes decisions according to individual cases, which are thoroughly reviewed.

The Independent contacted a number of banks, including Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, after obtaining anecdotal testimonies and copies of bank letters delivered to Syrians in the UK who were turned down as customers and had their accounts closed.

Four sources, who requested anonymity, encountered difficulties at Lloyds and Bank of Scotland, part of the Lloyds group. One of them was ultimately allowed to open an account at Halifax, also part of Lloyds Banking Group, on condition that he would refrain from sending money to Syria.

A spokesperson said: “While we were not given the opportunity to investigate these cases, we can categorically state that they do not reflect the group’s policy. Lloyds Banking Group does not make decisions to open or close accounts on the grounds of ethnicity or nationality.”

A spokeswoman for RBS added: “’We review every opportunity to support our customers  individually and take into account specific facts,  merits of each case, our internal policies and our legal and regulatory responsibilities.”