Flexible approach from the Immigration Bureau will be welcomed by foreign tourists still here since before April 2020. However, the need to be circumspect and observe all health regulations has never been more urgent as the kingdom’s fight against the second Covid-19 wave still lies in the balance. There is also evidence of increased police enforcement against foreigners in Thailand who are outside the law.
Stranded foreign tourists can stay in the kingdom up until the end of May according to an order signed by the Immigration Bureau commander last Thursday which gives local officers in each province the power to grant 60-day visa extensions from the 29th of January to the 30th of March next. It comes amid a worsening second wave of the virus outside of Thailand which has seen many European countries tighten or even close entry for all incoming passengers except in the case of emergencies.
Thailand’s Immigration Bureau Chief, Police Lieutenant General Sompong Chingduang, has announced a further visa extension for stranded tourists in the kingdom because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The written order, issued to all provincial Immigration Bureau commanders on January 28th, while it provides for discretion and an injunction to see that the immigration laws are strictly maintained, allows for a further 60 day extension for tourist visa holders beyond January 29th when the previous order expired.
Regulatory police order made by the Immigration Bureau chief under the Immigration Act
The previous order was made under the Immigration Act and police regulations allowing the Immigration Bureau commander to exercise such discretion under exceptional circumstances. Police Lieutenant General Sompong previously authorised immigration officers to grant a 60-day extension at any time from the 29th September 2020 to the 29th January 2021.
This new order, signed by the police chief on Thursday, allows such extensions to be granted now up to March 30th 2021. It means, in effect, that tourist visas can be extended until May 30th 2021.
Welcome change from the uncertainty experienced last year as a number of deadlines loomed
Last year, as numerous deadlines loomed for the end of the concession for stranded foreign tourists, nearly all who arrived in Thailand before the start of April 2020, the decision appeared to be a political one for the Prime Minister and the cabinet with last-minute reprieves issued despite warnings from senior Immigration Bureau police officers to the contrary.
Indeed on the last occasion, it happened that the deadline came and passed before news of the extension was publicly confirmed causing uncertainty. A number of foreigners, living here for some time, left the country in order to ensure strict compliance with the law.
Added to this were complicated requirements for letters from embassies and medical certificates which caused confusion and increased anxiety for many desperate to stay on in the kingdom.
Officers must still comply with proof of residency requirement and a fee of ฿1,900 is to be paid
There now appears to be a more understanding and streamlined process where the extension is granted subject to proving details of residency under Section 38 of the Immigration Act for security and order purposes.
This was particularly cited by the Immigration Bureau commander in last Thursday’s memo.
There will be a fee of ฿1,900 for each extension granted.
European countries closed to external travellers
In the order, the top police officer explained that the reason for the latest extension is the ongoing pandemic which has seen many European countries close their borders to non-European Union air traffic because of the second wave of the virus.
The United Kingdom has also tightened its entry criteria using a testing and quarantine regime much akin to that put in place in Thailand in the middle of last year.
The United States is allowing its citizens to return home although it has barred travellers from the UK and Europe at this time.
Estimate that there are still 100,000 to 150,000 stranded tourists living in Thailand as of now
The move will be welcomed by many foreigners genuinely stranded in the kingdom under an array of circumstances and those who have chosen to ride out the pandemic in the country.
In September, a source within the Immigration Bureau who wished not to be named, suggested that at that point there were up to 150,000 foreigners in the kingdom with tourist visas that would normally have expired. This figure was reported to have been nearly 500,000 when the kingdom shut its borders in early April 2020.
Current estimates put the figure at between 100,000 and 150,000 people staying on in Thailand on expired foreign tourist visas
Generous approach is welcome but foreigners here must be circumspect during the Covid-19 emergency
While the government and immigration authorities have adopted a generous response to tourists overstaying in the kingdom, foreign embassies have been urging their nationals to strictly comply with Covid-19 regulations and requirements when in public at all times.
Many Thais are under the impression, whether it be from fake news on social media, some of it emanating from China, genuine media reports of foreigners being arrested at illegal parties or statements from politicians, that there is an association between the Covid-19 virus and western foreigners despite its origin being in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The emergence of former tourist hotspots such as Pattaya and Phuket in the first wave of the virus as zones of high infection added to this perception.
Kingdom still under threat from the 2nd wave
The fight against the second wave of the virus in Thailand, which broke out in mid-December and centred on Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok and provinces surrounding the capital, appears to be going well for the government although there are still fears because it is so near the country’s largest urban centre.
In the meantime, while the Immigration Bureau is making it easier to extend visas for this group, it is also ramping up operation against foreigners involved in criminal activity and those breaking the country’s emergency degree to combat the Covid-19 virus.
1178 hotline to report ‘inappropriate’ behaviour
The force has widely published a 1178 hotline number where people are encouraged to report foreigners in the kingdom behaving ‘inappropriately’.
In the last few months, there has been an uptick in foreigners being arrested for criminal activity such as drug dealing and nefarious online enterprises.
On Tuesday this week, the Immigration Bureau office in Surat Thani province coordinated with local police on Ko Phangan to raid a bar on the island where no less than 89 foreigners, mostly western Europeans and women, were arrested and later given suspended sentences by a remote court sitting.
Health insurance coverage is a necessity as foreigners cannot receive free treatment for Covid-19 illness
In addition, foreigners in the kingdom particularly stranded tourists who run the risk of living without health insurance cover, are facing catastrophic financial problems if they happen to contract the Covid-19 virus.
In May last year, Ms Narumol Pinyosinwat, then a spokesperson for the government and who later took on the role as Deputy Labour Minister confirmed this: ‘Regarding tourists expense in medical treatment, they must take care of that on their own,’ she announced.
Similar statements have been made by senior officials at the Ministry of Public Health emphasising the need to reserve public health resources for Thai nationals.
However, hospitals are ethically bound to treat foreign patients and this was acknowledged by Khananart Muennu, a Ministry of Tourism and Sports spokesman, who explained that nevertheless they will be required to pay either directly or through having the appropriate health cover.
New automatic health insurance for foreign tourists
Since the onset of the pandemic and strict requirements for health coverage for all incoming foreign tourist, Thai firms have stepped up and provided cost-effective Covid-19 health insurance cover which ranges from ฿30,000 to ฿50,000 a year. This also includes accident and overall health insurance cover for those insured.
Under a new law, to be promulgated soon in the Royal Gazette and formulated by the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, all incoming tourists when the kingdom finally reopens with unrestricted access, will automatically assume health insurance cover when they arrive on payment of a tourist levy priced at ฿300.