CHIANG RAI, 13 August 2019: Thailand’s Immigration Bureau’s latest move to strictly apply two clauses in the 1979 Immigration Law is upsetting expatriates living in Thailand.
Over 5,000 of them signed a petition. That’s unprecedented. Usually, expatriates living in Thailand maintain a low profile; heads down well below the parapet. They enjoy life in the Land of the Smiles.
But the move to apply pre-internet era reporting rules for foreigners residing in the country touched a raw nerve. Many fear the bureau has removed the welcome mat.
That is not the case says the bureau. Instead, it claims to be robustly applying section 37 and 38 of the immigration law to strengthen security as it keeps tabs on the whereabouts of foreigners.
So in the name of fighting terrorism and “bad guys,” two short clauses in the law, ignored in the past, move to the top of the page.
Unfortunately for the Immigration Bureau, the forgotten requirements are now making headlines and prompting panel discussions hosted by foreign chambers of commerce, including a high profile one scheduled for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand this Thursday.
Of course, it will eventually catch the attention of international media and section 37 clauses three and four will be portrayed as villains driving more nails into the tourism coffin.
Tourists can relax. Their whereabouts are covered by the law’s section 38 that places the responsibility of reporting on the hotel, guesthouse or homestay where they stay.
Every evening hotel or guesthouse staff go online to connect with the Immigration Bureau’s database to log the details of all guests staying overnight. End of story.
The two clauses in section 37 instead apply to temporary-stay visa holders registered in accommodation other than hotels and guests houses.
Clause 3 says the foreigner must report any change of address to the nearest police station within 24 hours of moving residence by presenting a completed TM28 form. Reporting a house move is a requirement for most countries in Asia for both citizens and foreigners.
Clause 4 of Section 37 is an entirely different matter. It states temporary-stay foreigners, who travel to any province for more than 24 hours, must notify an official at the nearest police station to their registered address within 48 hours of their return.
They accomplish the reporting by asking their landlord to sign a TM30 form, and then they present the completed form at the police station.
There are foreigners who travel to other provinces every week, and at the close of every overnight trip, they need to present the completed TM30 form signed by the landlord at the nearest police station. It is viewed as a time-wasting routine week-after-week.
But that’s the law on the books since 1979. In practice, the Immigration Bureau allows foreigners to file the TM30 information online if they register and download the App, but the system is notoriously unstable. They can also submit the form by registered mail enclosing a stamp-addressed envelope for the bureau to return the receipt.
They have to complete the process within 48 hours of their return to their registered address. The alternative is to turn up in person at the Immigration Bureau or police station, whichever is closest to their registered address with a completed form in hand.
The petition may gain publicity, but it is doubtful that authorities will be prepared to change the law. It could take years, and in the meantime, the inconvenience of clause 4 of section 37 will remain.
But there is a less troublesome path that is identified in the Immigration Act itself in the second paragraph of section 37.
The director-general (usually the chief of police) can make changes to clauses 3 and 4. The DG can also through the Immigration Commission recommend a new ministerial regulation that updates the two clauses to make them more in tune with today’s online realities.
One possible change would be to stipulate that clause 4 reporting only kicks in after 72 hours away from home, rather 24 hours. It would allow thousands of expatriates who are long-stay or retirees to visit other provinces for up to three days without triggering a clause 4 reporting hassle.
It would be a good start that would improve the reporting environment and encourage long-stay visitors and retirees who are mainly on one-year visas to explore Thailand without falling foul of the 24-hour rule. It would allow expatriates to visit Pattaya and other beach resorts for a long-weekend without triggering the 24-hour reporting when they return home.
It would also support the government policy to encourage travel from urban centres to the provinces, which is a priority.
Foreign long-stay and retirees visitors engage in more trips and deliver a high daily spend when travelling in the provinces. Make it easier for them to explore the country. Give them a 72-hour break on reporting and encourage them to explore the country during the few years they will live here.