Thailand tightens border controls

Call it a Thai-style romance: Travellers come, fall in love with the land, and decide to stay for as long as they can.

Many, especially people from Western countries, end up staying for years without proper visas by getting 30-day extensions on their passport each time they hop over the border and back.

Those easy stays will soon be over. The junta-run administration is tightening controls over foreigners entering the country, as well as those living and working there illegally, as it seeks to rein in attendant problems that have dogged the kingdom for years.

From Aug 13, tourists granted entry without visas will not be given extensions after their initial stay. According to the Thai foreign ministry website, tourists from 48 countries, including Singapore, Australia and Germany, are currently exempted from applying for visas prior to arrival.

The ban on multiple re-entries plugs a loophole allowing foreigners to teach English, run businesses or do other jobs in the country by repeatedly extending their stays through border stamps.

Over the years, the relaxed arrangements - aided at times by corruption - have seen cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai acquire growing communities of expatriate writers, aid workers or travellers using the cities as a base.

But the border stamps are also exploited by foreign criminal gangs that have taken root in tourist districts like Pattaya, as well as outlaws seeking sanctuary in the kingdom, say security officials.

In addition, the junta has stepped up the registration of illegal workers mainly from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia through dedicated centres in 13 provinces, including Bangkok. While there are 2.2 million migrant workers on the records, some estimates put the actual number at three or even four million. Since late last month, when the first such centre was set up, more than 100,000 workers have been registered.

Both the undocumented expatriates and migrant workers have posed tax and security concerns.

"In terms of security, these were long-standing problems that needed addressing," said security analyst Anthony Davis from IHS-Jane's. "The English teachers and assorted tourists who have used visa runs to stay in the country are collateral damage (in Thailand's bid) to deal with illegal labour and unregulated use of Thailand by foreign criminal elements."

Anecdotes suggest that there is confusion about visa requirements. A Thai national, who last week returned to Bangkok from Japan with his British partner, recalled feeling "paranoid and panicky" after being told by airline officials that his partner would not be granted a visa exemption on arrival. The fears proved unfounded when they landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The accelerated registration of illegal workers comes after Thailand sank to the lowest grade in the United States' annual global report on human trafficking released last month. In that same month, a media report exposed slave-like conditions in the supply chains of one of Thailand's biggest food conglomerates.

Aid workers have long pointed out that the illegal status of these workers, who cannot afford the often inflated prices for proper documents, makes them vulnerable to extortion and abuse.

Thailand's junta came into power on May 22 after deposing the government through a military coup. Soon after, rumours that it was cracking down on illegal workers caused some 200,000 Cambodians to flee across the border.

It is not clear if the latest set of measures to regulate foreign nationals will last.

"A lot of these problems will prove fairly resilient," said Mr Davis. "But the systems that have been put in place will limit the scope of this corruption."

This article was first published on July 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.