Banks are to begin immigration checks on millions of accounts as part of a Home Office scheme to create a “hostile environment” for people living in the UK unlawfully.
The new scheme, which will be rolled out this month, requires banks and building societies to check all current account holders against a list of people liable for deportation or wanted by immigration enforcement.
If an account holder is found to be in the UK illegally the bank must inform the Home Office, which will instruct on action that may include closing the account.
“These new measures are part of our commitment to make it more difficult for people with no right to live or work in the UK to remain here,” immigration minister Caroline Noakes said.
The measures have been criticised by rights groups who say they will expose vulnerable people to harm, as well as putting those with regular migration status at risk of having their accounts mistakenly closed.
“What is shocking about this system is that people’s bank accounts, which they rely on for their jobs, their homes, and every aspect of life, can be closed with no clear means of redress or compensation in case of errors,” said Chai Patel, legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
“Additionally, this places people affected at even greater risk of exploitation and of being driven into a cash-only economy at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and landlords.”
A joint statement by Migrants’ Rights Network, Global Justice Now and No Borders in Banks said the measures could have “harmful and discriminatory” consequences including migrants being forced into hardship and account closures being felt disproportionately by people of black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Banks and building societies have been required to check a person’s immigration status before they open a current account since 2014, and a 2016 investigation found 10% of those denied an account after such checks had been refused wrongly.
In a statement, the Home Office said only the details of people who were “liable for removal” or who had “absconded from immigration control” would be shared, and that asylum seekers and others whose applications were being processed would not be affected.
Money will be returned to the account holders unless evidence of criminality is found, in which case an account could be frozen, the Home Office said.
“We must be firm with those who break the rules as illegal immigration impacts the whole of society,” it added.
“Those living and working in the UK illegally can drive down the wages of lawful workers, allow rogue employers to undercut legitimate businesses and put pressure on taxpayer-funded public services.”
The “hostile environment” refers to a range of Government policies aimed to make life difficult for people in the UK illegally, in order to encourage them to leave.
Current measures seek to prevent people from working, renting accommodation or getting driving licences, and have seen demands for immigration checks implemented in hospitals and schools.