Border insecurity mounts as tourist visa abuse is targeted

The Immigration Bureau's tough stance is mainly aimed at South Koreans, Russians and Vietnamese working in Thailand illegally, but could affect any nationality.

The chief of the Immigration Bureau said abuse of tourist visas by South Koreans, Russians and Vietnamese working illegally in Thailand was the main motivation for cracking down on cross-border visa runs.

Here for a holiday: A backpacker walks down Khao San Road in Bangkok. Immigration Bureau chiefs say genuine tourists will not be affected by the strict enforcement of visa rules. photos: epa and bkk post archive

On May 8, the bureau announced that immigration border checkpoints would no longer allow “out-in” visa runs for visitors to extend their stay “other than for the purpose of tourism”, in reality, an enforcement of existing laws.

Visa runs have fuelled a thriving business at popular tourist spots around the country. Typically, for a 2,000 baht fee, a minibus carries a visitor to a nearby border crossing, allows the foreigner to alight, and then takes him or her to a Thai immigration checkpoint where they have their passports stamped and stays extended.

Immigration officials have long expressed concerns that the visa runs are being abused by foreigners who are working illegally in Thailand as language teachers, restaurant owners and staff, real estate agents and tour guides.

Immigration Bureau Commissioner Pol Lt Gen Pharnu Kerdlarpphon told Spectrum that if foreigners wanted to retire, work or do business in Thailand they had to apply for the correct type of visa and not exploit those designated for tourists. “We have been too kind, for too long, and the system has been abused,” he said. “Also, work visas, which cost 1,900 baht, help generate income and we have to make money somehow.”

Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said South Koreans were the biggest abusers of the visa runs. The Thai government has a reciprocal arrangement with South Korea which allows nationals to stay in the country for 90 days on arrival.

He said immigration had received many complaints that South Koreans, Vietnamese and Russians were extending their stays through visa runs and were “stealing” jobs from Thais by working as tour guides and running restaurants.

“Since many tourists come to Thailand on a tourist visa and start to work illegally, we’ve decided that it’s time we became stricter in enforcing the law than we have been,” he said. “We have seen this problem for a long time but we have never bothered dealing with it before. But now we will, as some tourists seem to be abusing the rules.”

The changes have caused widespread confusion among foreigners in Thailand with specialist websites such as Thai Visa running lengthy updates on them. Some posters on the site's forum claim they are already being denied visas at some northern checkpoints, despite Pol Lt Gen Pharnu saying the crackdown will not come into effect until Aug 12.

clamp down: Pol Lt Gen Pharnu Kerdlarpphon.

Pol Col Sangkhom Tadso, immigration chief in Mukdahan which borders Laos, told Spectrum that his staff had been enforcing the changes for the past two weeks, mainly targeting South Koreans.

“There are 8,000 Thais deported from South Korea every year, while Thai immigration only deports 20 South Koreans per year,” he said. “We both have 90-day exemptions for tourist visas and South Koreans use that privilege to work here illegally. It’s a policy decided by Pol Lt Gen Pharnu Kerdlarpphon, the Immigration Bureau Commissioner, to strike back at South Korea’s government. They can deport us, we can do the same to them.”

Pol Col Sangkhom said since the law was being enforced, South Koreans were being denied entry on a daily basis.

Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said it did not matter how a tourist entered Thailand — whether it be with 15-, 30- or 90-day visa exemptions — if they exited a border checkpoint and tried to re-enter at the same point they would have to satisfy border control officials that their reason for travel is tourism. He also added that it did not matter what country the visitor came from.

This same scrutiny would apply to multiple-entry tourist visas issued by the Thai embassy in an individual’s home country. They could also be asked to provide evidence of financial support, which is typically 20,000 baht.

“If we see that the stamps on that tourist’s passport seem suspicious, we will ask that person to provide a travel itinerary and evidence of financial support,” he said. “If they fail to fulfil the requirements, we won’t let them in the country.”

CLEANING UP YOUR ACT

A middle-aged Korean restaurant owner told Spectrum how she had taken advantage of the generous visa arrangements between the two countries for almost a decade. She also admitted all her staff were illegal workers as she could not find Thais to work for the pay she offered.

The restaurateur said she only converted to a legitimate business visa a few years ago, after years of using a 90-day tourist visa while she established her eatery.

“I opened the restaurant here in Bangkok more than 10 years ago,” she said. “All my other friends were doing the same thing. We entered Thailand on tourist visas and left the country every three months. We travelled to Poipet on the border and came right back. Sometimes we even went back home to South Korea.”

Before she legally registered her permit with the correct business visa, she had to pay local police protection money.

“We really had no choice but allow them to come and eat for free,” she said. “Sometimes they paid, but most of the time they did not. Then once a year, they collected the protection fee to give us the freedom to run the business.”

She said Thailand had been “very generous” to the South Korean community and she was grateful she and others had been allowed to establish businesses, even though they started out illegally. She said as they became successful, most of the South Koreans had applied for the correct visas and made their businesses legitimate.

“After working here for a while, I can now afford to pay the two million baht to have my business registered and apply for a proper work permit,” she said.

Although she benefited from bending the visa rules, she agrees with the coming crackdown. She said many South Koreans who come to work in Thailand nowadays are fugitives from justice back home.

“The pay in Thailand is nothing compared with what they can make back at home, but they’re better off remaining here as a free person.

"They might end up in prison if they go back home.”

Even though she has now established her business as legitimate, she still faces extortion from police over her illegal workers.

“Now they come around to check my employees who are from Myanmar and Cambodian,” she said.

“I have to admit that I haven’t registered them yet, but I plan to. I hope after the crackdown starts and I do everything right, the police will leave us alone.”

UP TO YOU

Tour agents Spectrum spoke to said entry or re-entry to Thailand rested largely on an immigration officer’s discretion, a claim supported in part by the deportation of a young Russian woman that preceded the recent changes.

Immigration officials denied 26-year-old Mariia Sgibneva entry to Thailand at Phuket International Airport on April 21, forcing her to abandon her apartment in Phuket and return to Malaysia, according to local media reports.

Ms Sgibneva — who came forward with her story after the crackdown was announced — said she completed two crossings by land after her tourist visa expired in February, and that she had left by air twice since those crossings to visit friends in Kuala Lumpur. On returning from this second trip to Kuala Lumpur, she said, she was detained by immigration officials at the airport and asked to show 20,000 baht in funds and provide proof of onward travel.

“The first question they asked was if I had a departing ticket from Thailand. I didn’t,” Ms Sgibneva told the Phuket Gazette. “But it wasn't a big deal, I could buy one. I already knew when I was going to leave.”

Officials were unwilling to let her travel onward without showing her plans, so Ms Sgibneva hastily purchased a ticket to Malaysia on her phone and tried to show proof of the money in her bank account. But immigration officials couldn’t understand her bank’s Russian-language website and declined offers for translation.

“They asked me to show them 20,000 baht in cash,” she said. “I thought that by law I didn’t have to have the cash. It’s a lot of money. I thought I could show my bank account. They told me, ‘No, it’s not possible.’ They wanted to see the cash.”

Eventually, unable to convince them that she should be granted entry to the country, she flew back to Malaysia.

The entire ordeal left her rattled.

“I think for some people who want to do a visa run, the biggest problem is that they can deport you without any reason. I can understand that there are many Russian tourists who cause problems with Thai police, but if you really want to find the people who work, find them at their workplace,” she said.

“I don’t want to see anyone else in this kind of story, Russian or non-Russian.”

BORDER-RUN BOOTY

Most visa brokers in Bangkok who spoke to Spectrum last week said business was still booming. Agents at several travel services said they were unaware of the regulation change, and that border trips are continuing as usual, adding that those seeking to do a fifth or even sixth consecutive land crossing to Cambodia or Laos are still able to do so.

“Nothing has changed,” a major Bangkok visa broker said. “You can still go with no problem.”

crossing point: The border at Mae Sot Thailand is another popular spot for visa runs.

One agency hyped their “close relationship” with immigration officials that they said makes them impervious to regulatory changes, and a few travel agents offered to arrange non-immigrant O visas at exorbitant rates for those wanting to extend their stay in the Kingdom without leaving Bangkok.

However, some agents said Koreans, Filipinos, Russians and Brazilians risk being turned away at land crossings if they have even one prior crossing in their passport.

One travel agent said she was no longer taking Korean customers because of the risk of them being denied a crossing by immigration, and that Koreans seeking a visa exemption on arrival must now do so by flying in and out of the country.

Agents aware of the changes said they did not receive any official notice, and were uncertain of why the changes were taking place. One speculated that it has to do with two passports that were stolen in Thailand and used as false identification by Iranian men on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, while others said financial motivations were likely pushing the policy shift.

“Thailand is Thailand,” another visa agent said. “I think they want to show that Thailand is hard to live in.” She added that she expected the situation to return to normal in the near future.

While buses full of border jumpers continue to depart from the capital, the situation has unfolded differently in the North, where an agent at a prominent Chiang Mai-based company said Thai immigration officials are now barring travellers with several back-to-back border stamps from crossing at Mae Sai in Chiang Rai. The abrupt change at the Mae Sai crossing, formerly a site of regular visa runs for the city’s sizeable expat and backpacker communities, has removed a large share of his clientele. The crossing remains open to those with valid visas or those making their first land crossing for a visa exemption, he said, and his company is screening passengers beforehand to ensure they meet the new requirements.

THINK OF THE COUNTRY

Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said some visa-run operators had complained to immigration that the changes were costing them money. He said that after he explained the reasoning behind the current crackdown they “calmed down a little bit”.

“Do you love Thailand?” Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said he asked the complaining operators. “I told them that if you love our country, you must understand that these types of tourists are destroying our country by stealing jobs from Thais.

“Thai people can’t do this in other countries. Why would we let people from other countries do this to us? We have been kind to these people for so long. Now it’s time to be stricter about the law.”

Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said immigration police would allow the cross-border visa runs to continue until Aug 12. “We will still let those with tourist visas cross the border and come right back in from now until Aug 12. We will take time until then to publicise the law,” he said. “I'm sure it will take a lot of time to adjust, but this will be good for our country in the long term.”

After the grace period finishes, those working here illegally on tourist visas will have to apply for the right kind of visa.

“I would like to let everyone know that we fully support tourism in Thailand, but we will no longer allow people to abuse the law and use the tourist visa for the wrong purpose,” Pol Lt Gen Pharnu said.

One Northern operator said it was not the first time immigration had vowed to crack down on visa runs.

“I expect this will blow over in a couple of weeks or a couple of months and it will be business as usual,” he said. “The government probably needs money right now so they may be encouraging people to buy visas. It’s always really about money, isn’t it.”

stamp of approval: The Immigration Bureau has vowed to strictly enforce the law for multiple border crossings on visa exemptions, saying the system has been widely abused for too long.

please let us in: Tourists to Thailand may be asked to provide proof of onward travel plans and access to funds when passing through immigration. photos: thinkstock

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Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai & John Arterbury