Immigration set for overhaul

Immigration set for overhaul

Technology, tougher laws aid in terror fight

Major technology upgrades such as those at the new Thai Immigration 24/7 Center (TIC) provide new weapons for Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn (left) and the bureau. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)
Major technology upgrades such as those at the new Thai Immigration 24/7 Center (TIC) provide new weapons for Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn (left) and the bureau. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)

The Immigration Bureau is expediting efforts to overhaul the immigration system as it moves to prevent terrorist attacks including a much-touted "biometric'' system for screening people entering the country.

The move comes after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks and shootings overseas in recent months. While the government has adopted a policy of opening the country to attract tourists, security officials want to make sure this does not open the door to foreign criminals or even terrorist elements.

Major terrorist attacks and shootings occurred in Paris in November last year, in Istanbul, Turkey on Jan 12 and Jakarta, Indonesia on Jan 14. Dozens of people were killed and scores more wounded. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for most of the attacks.

However, Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn Prousoontorn, the new chief of the Immigration Bureau, said he is confident more stringent measures expected to be enforced between March and April will boost officials' ability to monitor suspects.

They include the screening of immigrants with the aid of more rigorous law enforcement as well as new technologies to improve the bureau's work.

The bureau is stepping up its efforts to screen people entering and leaving the country in the face of new terrorist threats and following the formal start of the Asean Community at the end of 2015, in which borders will open with relatively free movements of migrants from neighbouring countries.

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn admitted that handling the influx of tourists and migrants is a tough task, though it is still manageable because the government has provided support in terms of legal measures and technology.

He said the bureau is now on high alert to prevent terrorist elements from entering the country. ''Even though Thailand is not an enemy of anybody, the bureau cannot afford to let its guard down. After the Jakarta attacks, I immediately went down to the southern border provinces to inspect the immigration system there,'' he said.

During the inspection, he also held talks with Malaysian police to improve coordination between the two countries to watch out for potential terror threats.

He added that in December last year, a border checkpoint in Songkhla's Sa Dao district, the largest checkpoint in the South, opened a new terminal with a stricter screening system. The system is similar to that at an airport, he said.

Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn said the Immigration Bureau has also installed electronic fingerprint readers at major checkpoints bordering neighbouring countries. He stressed the need to use a biometric system, which includes fingerprint recognition, to identify individuals and verify their identity. "We need to move to a biometric system, or we will have trouble screening people. Many terrorists hold fake passports and the existing screening system does not measure up,'' he said.

Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn said the Royal Thai Police office has allocated a budget of 1.29 billion baht to install biometric systems at other police units between March-April, in addition to the Immigration Bureau.

He said terrorists or criminals often avoid immigration checks at Thai airports as they opt to fly to airports at neighbouring countries, and then travel overland or across the Mekong River to Thailand. "We have to watch out for them and take action to wipe them out,'' he said. 

He also said the Immigration Bureau is also stressing better passport checks to prevent terrorists using fake documents from entering the country. He said electronic passports issued by major countries are highly secure. They are hard to forge and easy to check, he added.

On Jan 19, the Immigration Bureau and security agencies from Asean held a session to train staff at Suvarnabhumi airport on how to detect fake passports. More than 200 staff from airlines and banks, customs officials, and anti-drug police attended. Experts from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as from Canada, Australia, and Germany were invited to share their knowledge on passports.

Pol Lt Gen Nathathorn said the bureau is closely monitoring the movements of three groups of foreigners from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East as part of efforts to prevent the threat of transnational crimes and terrorist activities. If there are in-coming flights with these targeted groups on board, immigration authorities will be deployed to check them immediately after they land, he said.

He added the introduction of the Advance Passenger Processing System (APPS) will also help boost airport security by screening each passenger more closely than the current system. 

The system allows customs officials, airport and airline staff and immigration police to obtain the profiles of passengers from their countries of origin.

They will be able to check if passengers are blacklisted or banned from leaving a country. Authorities will share passenger information and ordinary passengers whose profiles are clean can pass immigration checks faster.

He said a new law will also be enforced on March 20 to blacklist tourists caught overstaying their visas, and ban them from re-entering Thailand for a certain period of time.       


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