Having invoked the Emergency Decree, the government's message to the people is clear: Stay home and minimise physical contact to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But the Immigration Bureau's message to tourists stranded in the country suggests otherwise as they are still required to come to extend their visa in person at its offices.
With the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in Thailand, the bureau should have been more sensitive to foreigners' potential exposure to the virus during this process.
Images of foreign residents including migrant workers in huge queues at the immigration office on Chaeng Watthana Road in Bangkok early this week speak volumes. The office was so overcrowded that people were forced to wait in a nearby compound that once housed a now-shuttered market. They had flocked there ahead of the government's invocation of the Emergency Decree on Thursday to have their paperwork done on time. Due to the high number of applicants, many of them had to return the next day.
The bureau's offices serve foreigners who want to extend their visas, make their 90-day place of residence report and file their 24-hour accommodation reports, as well as migrant workers who are required to process various paperwork.
The crowded gathering prompted the bureau to change its policy to encourage those filing their 90-day or 24-hour reports to do it online.
It is questionable why the bureau let this reporting process run as usual even though the government earlier urged people to practise social distancing. Unfortunately, its online processing capabilities exclude those holding a 30-day tourist visa who wish to extend it. With flight cancellations or lockdowns in their home countries, many tourists stranded in the country have no choice but to process paperwork at the bureau's Muang Thong Thani office in Nonthaburi which has been roped in to help with the overflow.
Apart from being exposed to physical contact with other tourists and officials, they also have to travel around the city. First of all, the bureau requires that they get a letter from their embassies certifying the need for a visa extension. After that, they must then travel to Nonthaburi.
Bureau deputy spokesman Phakkhaphong Saiubon insisted that online applications are not allowed for this group of foreigners due to national security concerns.
During a national health crisis, the bureau's treatment of this group of foreigners should have been much better.
Apart from the need to be sensitive to their genuine fears of infection in a foreign country, the bureau should not forget that tourism has been the backbone of the country's economy for a long time. Tourism contributes about 20% of GDP, and last year the country earned 1.96 trillion baht from its 39.8 million visitors.
National Security has become a catchphrase used by the bureau in recent years whenever it faced criticism over irrational policies towards foreigners. These include an odd measure to have them report any changes of residence, even temporary, within 24 hours.
If the bureau is concerned about national security, it should rely on strict, specific screening and surveillance to target particular criminal suspects rather than counterproductive blanket measures.
As the virus continues to spread unabated, the bureau should let tourists extend their visas online. At the moment, it is Covid-19 that is posing a national security threat -- not stranded tourists.