Controversy as Australian spouses denied access to repatriation flights to Thailand from Australia this week as concern grows for thousands of stranded foreigners in the kingdom, many of whom are facing a financial and accommodation crisis as the lockdown drags on into the fifth week.
Some Australian spouses of Thai women living in Australia have complained bitterly that Australians with Thai wives are not allowed to buy tickets on a special flight due to take off on Sunday for Bangkok. It comes as hundreds of thousands of foreigners in Thailand wait anxiously to see how or when normal life will resume so that they can return to their home countries. Many were cut off by cancelled flights while others decided to ride out the worldwide virus emergency in the kingdom.
Australian spouses of Thai wives are critical of planned repatriation flights to Thailand from Australia and New Zealand due to take place this week.
A memo from the Thai Embassy in Canberra issued to registered parties has stated categorically that anyone returning on the flight which is limited to 200 people, must be a Thai national. The memo especially limits consideration for such flights to Thai nationals whose case has been adjudged to be urgent. It specifically excludes foreigners even those who are permanent residence holders in Thailand or spouses of Thai nationals. The same conditions apply to a similar flight from Auckland on Monday next.
Those repatriating to Thailand must pay for their tickets at Aus$1,290 per seat one way
The memo also indicates that anyone availing of the opportunity or ‘right’ to be repatriated to Thailand is responsible for the ticket fee of $1,290.
Those on the flights are also required to undergo 14 days quarantine at a government-run facility when they arrive in Thailand.
This is normally a hotel where accommodation is comfortable but sometimes those in quarantine can expect to share a room with another person depending on the arrangements made.
The flights to repatriate Thai nationals abroad are being coordinated it the Covid 19 administration centre in association with the Thai Centre of Disease Control.
The quarantine requirements were stressed this week by Thai Airways Vice Chairman and acting President of the airline, Chakkrit Parapuntakul, who gave details of this week’s flight missions.
Flight leaving Bangkok for Australia on Sunday
The first flight being undertaken by Thai Airways takes off from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Saturday, April 25th. This is Flight TG475.
The next day, Sunday, April 26th, Flight TG476 flies back to Bangkok. Another flight TG491 departs from Bangkok for Auckland on Sunday, April 26th and returns from Auckland to Bangkok on Monday, April 27th which is Flight TG492.
It is understood that some of those aboard the flight from Bangkok to Australia include Thai spouses of Australian nationals returning home.
Cabin crew dressed to control the virus
All cabin crews on the flights will be dressed in protective clothing including special suits, gloves and medical masks. They have been given briefings on how to monitor passengers during the flights from take-off to landing.
The planes will be deep cleaned after each leg of the trip.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs liaising with Australian and New Zealand embassies to organise the flights
The flights are currently being organised by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Australian and New Zealand embassies in Bangkok in liaison with Thai consular officials in Sydney, Canberra and Wellington.
All conditions for eligibility are being arranged at a government level in the kingdom tasked with ensuring protection against the virus while fulfilling a government promise to repatriate Thai nationals.
The inability of some Thais to return home at the point when flights were suspended has struck a sensitive chord with many people in Thailand.
It is not clear if there will be further flights like this in the future given the relatively low number of seats available. However, the memo issued to all those registered on flights suggested that this may be the case.
Officials at the Thai consulate and embassies in Australia and New Zealand have indicated that this may be a possibility but underlined that it is a decision for governing agencies in Thailand liaising with their Australian counterparts.
A survey of those interested in availing of such flights was conducted by the Thai ministry between April 1st and 7th to assess demand for flights to Thailand from Australia among the Thai expat community in the commonwealth country.
Part of a programme to manage the repatriation of thousands of stranded Thai nationals abroad
In the aftermath of Thailand’s decision in April to strengthen requirements for inbound passengers and then its abrupt decision to close its air space and borders to passenger flights, a control centre was set up to manage the repatriation of thousands of Thai nationals stranded in many countries around the globe.
Many of these are students but they also include a significant number of foreign spouses who wish to return home to Thailand at this time.
Foreign spouses constitute a significant number of the growing and increasingly influential Thai diaspora abroad.
Increasing concern for foreign tourists stranded in Thailand as the lockdown and crisis extends
It comes as the crisis for foreigners stranded in Thailand is mounting as the lockdown continues into its fifth week with more restrictions than ever now in place.
The number of foreigners in the country above and beyond normal long-stay residents and expats could be as high as 500,000 people with huge numbers in Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Chonburi and Phuket provinces.
In the southern islands of Surat Thani province alone, this week, it was estimated that there are 10,000 stranded foreigners broken down between 5,700 on Ko Samui with 3,300 on Ko Phangan and 1,000 on Ko Tao.
Many left high and dry when flights were cancelled while others opted to ride out the crisis in Thailand
Tikamporn Sutti-udomrat who is the tourism chief in the area has taken up their case saying that many were simply stranded when flights were cancelled and through a combination of circumstances.
Many have run out of money or are facing accommodation difficulties.
‘They have accommodation, travel and growing expense problems. I have sought help from the Tourism and Sports Ministry,’ Mr Tikamporn revealed.
He has urged hotels still open to cater for the foreigners on the islands until the kingdom reopens and flights are available again.
Medical screening of tourists who need help
In the meantime, the tourist boss is making arrangements for those in direst need including many in need of accommodation and without funds.
He is also taking steps to have the stranded foreign visitors medically screened in the light of the current virus health emergency.
Limited Russian, German and Turkish airlifts
Some countries have already arranged airlifts for their nationals including Germany, Russia and a number of flights due to take off this week for Turkish nationals.
However, the numbers left behind even for these countries, are still vast.
For the greater majority, it must be said at this point, the decision to stay on in Thailand has not been the wrong one even as anxiety levels rise.
Extensions of visas announced this week
The problem is just how long the lockdown will carry on and after that how long will it before flights are running again.
The Thai cabinet granted a second automatic extension of visas this week until the end of May and officially at least, that is the time scale for now.
That will appear a long time away for many.
What is the most perplexing thing about this virus crisis, the longer it endures, the less certain anyone is about just how things are going to work out.