The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has been working around the clock to repatriate Thai nationals and foreigners stranded by the coronavirus back to the kingdom. Chatri Archjananun, director-general of the Department of Consular Affairs, sat down to share the inside story of the race against time to bring them back home.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Chatri recalled that sending a chartered flight for Thais stranded in Wuhan was the most arduous rescue mission, but it "taught us a lesson" and became a model for later flights.
"On Feb 4, we came under pressure to evacuate our citizens from the then epicentre of the outbreak. We sought permission from China and sent our staff and doctors by air. Meanwhile, our staff at the Royal Thai Embassy in Beijing drove 1,000 kilometres to Wuhan and did everything at the airport, such as checking in passengers and taking their temperature. It was a blessing in disguise because it was a learning curve and we have a good memory of this mission," he said.
The MFA's staff of 1,500 are split half and half between Thailand and overseas. In the wake of a disaster, they stand by to provide emergency aid for those living overseas; for instance, they responded to the volcanic eruption in Indonesia and the civil unrest in Libya.
By the time the emergency decree concerning the coronavirus took effect on March 26, Mr Chatri said the ministry had already managed to handle some repatriation flights, but the evacuation of Thais stranded in Latin America was a new tough nut to crack.
"The flight from Latin America is expensive and complicated. With Covid-19, we could rarely see a way out, but we still managed to make it happen. Some (of those we repatriated) travelled from Latin America to Brazil to Mexico to Netherlands to Thailand. Others headed for Kuala Lumpur and crossed the southern border of Thailand. We have a lot of sympathy for this group because these flights are not free, except the chartered flight to Wuhan sponsored by the private airline [AirAsia]," he said.
Cooperation is key
Mr Chatri said handling of the coronavirus outbreak requires close cooperation with international and domestic agencies. The ministry has joined hands with airlines to ease the financial burden of repatriation.
"When India, Italy, and Russia chartered flights to evacuate their citizens, we asked them to bring Thais back. Meanwhile, when we repatriated our citizens from Sydney, we flew 300-400 Australians back home. We are working together during the crisis," he said.
He said the ministry is working with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Public Health, the Immigration Bureau, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) to ensure successful repatriation missions.
"Each ministry sends its staff to clear up unresolved issues at the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA). If they remain unsettled, they will be forwarded to the premier [for the final say]. You can see we have streamlined hierarchy, expedited decision-making, and let information flow from a single source [CCSA]," he said.
Mr Chatri said the number of overseas Thais totals around 1.6 million, but, like other nationals, they rarely register with the ministry. Fortunately, elections held outside the kingdom last year for absentee voters has given authorities a rough idea how many Thais are living abroad.
Equipped with this information, Mr Chatri said the ministry must determine the number of returnees in line with the capacity of state quarantine.
As of Sept 4, it has brought back 82,631 from abroad by land, air, and sea. The government has set a quota of returnees of 600 per day, up from 200 in the early period.
"Stranded tourists, the sick, and those whose visas will soon expire are the first group we bring back. Students, monks, and the unemployed are the second group. We also consider other factors, including health risks and fair quotas for all groups. However, no matter how hard we try, we can't cope with the demand of hundreds of thousands of Thai workers in South Korea and Malaysia because we must help others as well," he said.
Mr Chatri said uncontrollable factors are unemployment and various state measures, for example the stringent policy of South Korea imposed on around 140,000 jobless illegal workers or so-called phi noi (little ghosts). "The South Korean government requires them to self-report, or they will be charged and blacklisted. This stance encourages them to come back. They have discussed with us the possibility of increasing the number of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector under contract. For instance, they can spend three or four months working there annually," he said.
One other experience he recounts was the sudden enforcement of a flight ban by the CAAT which resulted in Thais being stranded at airports and unable to obtain necessary documents.
"We spent three days repatriating those marooned at airports. We instructed our staff to provide survival kits, find connecting flights, issue letters, and asked doctors to give them health certificates. It might be chaotic because we had to solve problems in a hurry," he said.
Despite obstacles along the way, Mr Chatri said staff feel committed and happy to help repatriate Thais and foreigners to their homelands safely. "One of Thai returnees said her mother was dying, but the flight quota was already filled. We asked the airline to let her board the flight for emergency reasons to see her mother on her deathbed. She wrote us a thank-you letter and we posted it on the wall. Some blame us for not picking up calls or using inappropriate words in reply, but we have chosen not to respond. In fact, we have limited resources, including staff," he said.