The Thai Immigration Bureau is right now in the middle of another crackdown. This means near-daily stories of foreigners being detained and caught up in a nightmare for breaking the kingdom’s strict immigration laws. This includes being held in challenging and unhygienic prison conditions where several western detainees have already died. The story of 28-year-old Thomas Tana, a Kiwi who thought that the worst that could happen was deportation when he decided to work illegally in Thailand explains what really happens even though Mr Tana was both resourceful and lucky.  He was eventually deported after being an inmate of the immigration detention centre in Bangkok for a number of weeks at the end of last year.

A young man from New Zealand has warned visitors or any foreigner considering working in Thailand to make sure that they only do so with the necessary visa and work permits.

New Zealand national Thomas Tana during the short but  idyllic spell on Ko Phi Phi last year when the dream job looked like it was just that. This was just before his arrest and subsequent detention at the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok where the environment could not have been more different.

The story of Thomas Tana and his short experience of living in Thailand highlights the real and heightened dangers posed to even normally law-abiding westerners seeking employment in Thailand or planning to live or work in the kingdom. In October, the Thai Immigration Bureau announced another crackdown on foreigners playing fast and loose with Thai law including the country’s strict immigration regulations.

In recent weeks, one of those arrested was a Russian boxing coach arrested at a gym in Jomtien after police discovered he had been living in the kingdom for 4 years without a visa and working teaching students at a local gym. The Russian man’s case is even more serious as police discovered that he entered Thailand illegally.

Easy for previously law-abiding foreigners to become ensnared with immigration laws

Not all cases are as serious. Indeed normally law-abiding foreigners in Thailand can end up being ensnared and quickly find themselves on the wrong side of Thailand’s laws when their immigration status becomes complicated. Thai authorities have a strict interpretation of liability in respect of the immigration law and there are no excuses accepted.

Circumstances such as the failure of a business, illness or the death of a loved one can lead to trouble

In June this year, Thai police in Hua Hin reported the arrest of a UK man 50-year-old Michael Gary Doyle on an 8-year visa overstay charge. The UK national had been running a beer bar in the centre of Hua Hin. It was reported that Mr Doyle had fallen into a state of depression after the death of his Thai wife and become reclusive.

Kiwi arrested in October 2018 in a bar on Ko Phi Phi

On October 20th last year, a 28-year-old New Zealander was taken in by immigration officers when they raided a bar on the exotic island of Ko Phi Phi. Thomas Tana had only been in Thailand for over a week when his dream lifestyle job came to a screeching halt.

Working in Perth and offered a dream job in Thailand

The young Kiwi had been living and working in the West Australian city of Perth when he was offered what appeared to him last year to be a tempting offer. 

Come and work at a tourist bar on a tropical island paradise. With low wages but free accommodation, alcohol and work that was more like a party, he decided to give it a go. ‘Just party, have a good time and do a bit of work,’ he was promised.

He admitted that he knew that the offer was ‘dodgy’ when he asked about the need for a work permit. He was told by his potential employers that ‘everybody is doing it’ and it would be no problem.

It started out that way according to Tana

The young man was impressed with the beautiful sandy beaches, the beautiful Thai women and the welcome he received.

That was until the fateful night when Thai immigration police from the mainland walked on him and caught him serving drinks and taking money from customers in the bar. ‘They came in one night and they saw me working on the bar, taking money, giving drinks. That’s pretty much a real big no-no,’ Tana recalls. 

UK man also arrested that night in Ko Phi Phi

A UK man was also arrested with the Kiwi in the course of the raid. They were told by police that they would be deported but they would be allowed to return to their accommodation for one last night to retrieve their belongings. The police held their passports.

The next day, the men were taken into custody and transported to Krabi where they were locked in a police station holding cell until the next leg of their journey to Bangkok.

The two were then transported to Bangkok and once in the capital transferred to the Immigration Detention Centre in the centre of the city.

That’s when things started to get hairy for Mr Tana

The young man was simply horrified by the teeming number of inmates and the oppressive heat at the facility. 

‘You walk in, everyone is in their undies because it’s so friggin hot. They search you as well, take half of your shit off you and then leave you with just the basics,’ Thomas Tana recalled as he remembers his introduction to the nightmarish prison conditions.

‘It was f**king horrible’ – New Zealander found himself in a small cell with 120 other detainees

Stranded and disbelieving, comparing the idyllic lifestyle he had enjoyed on the paradise island just days or even hours previous to his current surroundings, the young man found himself locked with 120 people in a bare 4 metres by 10 metes cell occupied by thieves, overstayers and a range of criminal types.

All he had was a blanket, his bed was the filthy floor. ‘It was f**king horrible,’ he exclaims.

Shocked when guards presented him with an ID card

After the initial horror, the next thought that occurred to Mr Tana was how long would he be in this place before being deported? He was hopeful that it would only be a matter of hours or days before he was put on a flight back to New Zealand.

What stunned him then was when an official took a photograph of him and handed him an ID card. It began to dawn fearfully on the Kiwi that this may well be his home for some time. 

Further rapid and panicked enquiries revealed that there were men locked up here for years while many had been detained for months even just in relation to overstay matters.

Many UK nationals being held in the same cell, one being a murderer – allowed out twice a week

The young New Zealander revealed that many of the 120 inmates in the cell were Europeans including over 20 UK nationals who for some reason appeared, at least to him, to be held longer than other European or western nationalities.

One man was a convicted murderer being returned to serve a prison sentence in the United Kingdom.

Tana said he was only left out for one hour twice a week to walk in a basketball court surrounded by bars.

He described the food at the detention centre as rice with a sickly fish type stew which he found inedible.

Human rights groups have expressed concern about immigration detention in Bangkok

Human rights groups including Human Right Watch have for years complained about the overcrowding in Thai immigration detention centres where they claim prisoners lack enough personal space, hygiene, food and proper air.

Kiwi died in immigration custody early in 2018

In early 2018, another Kiwi, a former synthetic drugs millionaire who moved to Thailand to live a glamorous lifestyle was reported as having died at an immigration holding centre after being arrested in December 2017 on immigration offences at a luxurious residential resort in Pattaya.

It should be pointed out the Kiwi Kemp Ashby also known as Lee Vincent was reported to have had an underlying health issue and is also suspected of using steroids extensively for bodybuilding before his arrest. 

One hour break an opportunity to brief guards and contact the New Zealand embassy in Bangkok

Later in 2018, his quick thinking compatriot Mr Tana soon discovered that the one-hour break was an opportunity to get guards to pass on a  message to the national embassies.

He successfully got word to the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok who promptly visited him and made arrangements to have the young man fly home.

The expeditious response from the New Zealand embassy is reported to compare favourably to other national embassies in Thailand. A more indifferent attitude prevails in many. 

Difficulties organising plane tickets from immigration detention and the rules are strict

In addition to this, many detainees, even with money, find it difficult to arrange the fare for the flight home.

Thai authorities insist that the tickets are booked directly with the airline as opposed to bargain tickets available through online services. They must also be fully paid for. 

An American man recently reported to the Thai Examiner that he was deported to the United States to face a minor charge in front of New York court for which he received a fine.

US man had to organise the third party to purchase plane tickets home when Thai family abandoned him

However, the elderly man reported that for weeks he was unable to get someone to purchase a plane ticket using his funds in Thailand as his Thai wife’s family abandoned him when he was dramatically arrested.

He ended up having to pay a third party a commission to arrange the transaction for him in a complicated arrangement leveraged from his awkward position as a prison detainee. 

The US man, whose arrest had been orchestrated through the US Embassy, was subsequently barred from reentering Thailand in spite of owning property in the kingdom held in his wife’s name.

Story of Kiwi verified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Auckland including two inmate deaths

The story told by Thomas Tana has been verified by news agencies in New Zealand in addition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Auckland.

Mr Tana also raised concerns about physical violence at the detention centre between prisoners and said he witnessed two deaths in one night.

Subsequent enquiries to the IDC in Bangkok did confirm that one night during the period that the Kiwi was held at the facility had seen two deaths. A 72-year-old man from Vietnam and a 55-year-old had died.

Kiwi says he is not complaining about his treatment

At the same time, the  New Zealand man insisted that he personally was not complaining about the situation.

He made a mistake and put himself in a position where he was detained in a foreign country. He recalls vividly that he ended up in a place where he had very few rights.

Foreigners thinking of working in Thailand must make sure that everything is in order

Thomas Tana insists that there were many less fortunate people detained at the centre in Bangkok and that young people the world over should take care not to consider working in the kingdom without a proper visa, work arrangements and work permit.

Indeed the situation is even more perilous for middle-aged or elderly foreigners or those with an underlying medical condition.

Any other arrangement is simply a roll of the dice on a very real personal gambit and danger. The hard reality is, of course, that the danger is death.

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Further reading:

Crackdown on illegal foreigners sees American teacher arrested in class and Russian at his restaurant lunch

Immigration boss warns that a new crackdown on foreigners flouting Thai laws has begun

UK man claims FBI investigating the death of 41-year-old American held at Thai immigration jail in May