Foreign national spouses left hanging in the air

Thousands of foreign nationals who are married to Thai citizens are expressing their concerns and frustrations over the Thai government’s travel restrictions because they are not included among those allowed into the country, leaving them stranded overseas, separated from their loved ones.

According to the Emergency Decree declared on 25 March, the only foreigners who are allowed to enter the country are those with work permits or smart visas and those granted permission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This does not include foreigners with marriage visas.

In April the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand imposed a ban on all incoming international flights, except for state or military aircraft, emergency landings, technical landings without disembarkation, humanitarian aid, medical and relief flights, repatriation flights and cargo flights.

So foreigners with marriage visas cannot travel due to the flight ban and cannot enter the country due to the Emergency Decree.

Both restrictions have been extended to 30 June.

Among many thousands of cases, Jaco Willem Kotze is stranded away from his wife and daughter in Western Cape, South Africa. The three of them left Thailand for a family vacation on 27 Feb and returned on 25 March, the day the Emergency Decree was imposed.

Jaco’s wife and daughter were able to enter as they are Thai citizens, but as foreigners were no longer allowed in, Jaco was denied entry as he did not meet the criteria. He was then forced to return to South Africa despite having all the specially required travel documents and a marriage certificate and a long-stay retirement visa. Jaco also had to pay for his flight back to South Africa.

Jaco said he was “confused, angry, very hurt nauseas [sic], [and wanted] to get sick from all that bad stress, but more angry to see the pain in my wife's eyes.”

They want their voices heard.

Two Facebook groups have been founded as platforms for people like Jaco to share their stories in the hope of communicating with the authorities so that they can be reunited with their families, “Farangs Stranded Abroad Due to lockdown in Thailand” has over 800 members and “Thai Expats Stranded Overseas Due To COVID-19 Travel Restrictions” has over 1600 members as of 27 May.

Michael V Piroon, a Thai citizen whose fiancée is stranded in Shenzhen, China, and a member of both groups, made a video called “FAMILY COMES FIRST - let us fly back to our love ones” on his YouTube channel after reading others’ stories in the Facebook groups. Michael said that instead of sitting there and complaining, he wanted to act. Michael hopes the video and the stories will catch the media's attention and get heard.

“I’m going to fight for my fiancée to get back as fast as she can, [and] I’m also going to fight for everybody too,” Michael said.

Michael expects the Thai government to be clearer on its plans on when each type of foreigner will be allowed to enter. Michael said he sought help from many government agencies but was told different things.

“I call the AOT [Airports of Thailand], they say one thing, I call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they’ll do another thing, I call the Embassy, they tell you to do another thing,” Michael said. “We need more coordination and I think that has to trigger from the top down.”

It is not only Michael who experienced confusion from government agencies. The Nation Thailand reported on Chonpiti Duangsangaram, whose husband, Daniel Nolan, is stranded in Australia, and who said she tried to get her husband back by speaking to the immigration officials at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, but they said it was beyond their authority. Rob Kennedy also said the Thai Embassy in Brunei was helpful, but high-ranking officials in Bangkok are showing little interest in his case.

Bob Natalini is stranded in the United States and has been separated from his wife and daughter for five months. Bob, who carries an expired Thai non-immigrant visa, said he has contacted the Thai Consulate in New York but did not receive any response. Ten days prior to Bob’s flight to Thailand, the border closed. Bob said he was preparing to build a house for his family.

“The Thai government must prioritize reuniting families,” Bob said in his post. “That is a human right.”

Bob also said he is afraid that people from the United States will be the last group to be allowed entry as the pandemic situation there is “wildly out of control.”

What is ahead remains unknown.

Some group members plan to fly to neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to enter Thailand through a land border. However, Pol Col Cherngron Rimpadee, Deputy Immigration Police Spokesperson, said both land and sea borders have the same measures and regulations as air borders, and foreigners who do not meet the criteria stated in the Emergency Decree will not be allowed to enter.

As there have been many reports of separated couples, Allan McKinnon, the Australian Ambassador to Thailand, said on 6 May that he has taken this issue to the Office of the Prime Minister, and received a response saying that the Thai government is aware of the situation but in the ongoing situation, as there are limited quarantine facilities and medical personnel within the country, the government has to be cautious with all inbound passengers. Ambassador McKinnon said in the video that it has been confirmed that the Thai authorities are not focused on bringing non-citizens into Thailand right now, according to the letter he received from the Office of the Prime Minister.

Alex Wilson, one of the group’s admins, said he called the MFA’s Department of Consular Affairs and was told that at the end of the month there will be an online registration for foreigners who need to return to Thailand.

“Let's hope this is the case. I am more and more confident that at least by July, we will be able to return,” Alex said.

Prachatai English reached out to the Department of Consular Affairs but did not receive any confirmation of the plan.

Foreign nationals who meet the criteria stated in the Emergency Decree may register for repatriation flights, according to Jacy Fu, who has spoken to a friend who works at the MFA. Fu said companies in Thailand employing individuals must submit a letter of intent to the MFA for approval, and once approved, they have to contact the local Thai Embassy.

While travel may depend on availability of flights, Fu said there were three Hong Kong nationals on a repatriation flight on 27 May. Chris Franck, another member of the group who has a Thai marriage visa and a work permit, also posted that he received an email from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington DC saying that he is eligible for the repatriation flights.

Post Today reported on 26 May that the government is considering lifting the travel restrictions if the situation gets better. Minister of Transport Saksayam Chidchob said there should be a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Thailand and each country on conditions and health procedures for international travel. Saksayam said this would not be for every country but only for the countries that have stable control of the pandemic according to World Health Organization standards.

As of today, there is no clear policy to allow foreign national spouses of Thai citizens to reunite with their families in Thailand. Because the flight ban and the Emergency Decree have been extended to 30 June, the soonest that any foreigner will be allowed entry is 1 July.

Update (29 May):

MFA has sent out a letter on 28 May to all Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand explaining the details and procedures for non-Thai nationals to re-enter the country, as The Thaiger reported. These guidelines are for foreigners who carry a work permit. However, foreigners without a work permit can ask their new employers to get permission from the Ministry of Labour (MOL) to be eligible.

It was stated in the letter that only those who are in urgent need may apply for entry. The MFA in consultation with the Board of Investment and the MOL will consider all requests on a case-by-case basis.

The procedures are the following:

  1. Contact the Royal Thai Embassy or the Royal Thai Consulate-General in the country of departure to apply for a Certificate of Entry into the Kingdom of Thailand at least 10 working days before the date of intended departure.

    The applicants must present a copy of work permits or a letter of permission issued by a Thai government agency to work in Thailand and a valid health insurance policy covering all expenditures of medical treatment including COVID-19 worth at least $100,000.
     

  2. The embassy or consulate-general will forward the application to the MFA for approval. A Certificate of Entry into the Kingdom of Thailand will be issued if approved.
     
  3. A Certificate of Entry into the Kingdom of Thailand, a completed and signed Declaration Form, a Fit to Fly Health Certificate and a valid health insurance policy will be required upon departure.
     
  4. All foreign nationals entering Thailand will be subjected to a 14-day state quarantine at a government-designated alternative state quarantine facility at their own expenses.