Guardians of our Gates
Over the past few months Citylife has received numerous emails, and even had personal visits, from expatriates who have expressed frustrations over the ongoing problems at Chiang Mai Immigration Office. Online forums and social media groups have been overflowing with criticism of the department, which so many rely on. We have heard of long queues, all-night vigils, allegations of corruption, overworked staff and a mounting number of people given wrong (or not being given) information, causing them to go to great expense to pay overstay fines or having to leave the country to redo their visas, and these are just some of the more frequent gripes.
In early September, in order to hear more on this matter from our readers, we conducted an online survey, asking our readers to give us a few insights as to their experiences at immigration, and to also suggest improvements to the services. Nearly 300 respondents offered up alarming, heartbreaking and outrageous anecdotes of their own experiences, as well as some more understanding and helpful suggestions which we will forward to immigration in hopes they will be of help to the beleaguered department.
For the past year, Citylife has been requesting an interview with Chiang Mai Immigration, but have yet to receive a response. This may be due in part to a 2013 interview we conducted with Police Colonel Prachak Awaiyawanont, the then-newly appointed chief of the Chiang Mai Immigration. Unfortunately, following his extremely candid interview [Immigration Frustrations, ChiangMaiCitylife.com] during which he told us that he was greatly understaffed, that budget from the Treasury Department wasn’t forthcoming for new facilities, the fact that only 20% of the annual 100 million baht collected in fines and fees was sent back to Chiang Mai, and his suggestion that we all write to complain to the Prime Ministers’ office, he was quickly removed from office and I am sorry to say I don’t know what has happened to him. Before he left, he called me in for a ceremonial knuckle-rapping, photographed by his staff, to be sent to Bangkok to imply that I had misquoted him. I hadn’t. He did say before the interview that he was soon to retire and that was why he was willing to be so forthcoming.
For months, we have been umming and aahing about writing this story, afraid to get not just ourselves, but anyone we talked to, into trouble. Our office has been visited by immigration staff over the years, often intimidating, and on occasion, asking for bribes.
A few months ago, during a conversation with a well-placed source in the Chiang Mai Consular Corps, we were pleased to hear that the corps, comprised of consuls and honorary consuls from 19 countries, had placed immigration reform as one of their priority issues, having met with members of the immigration department, the governor as well as their own ambassadors to discuss this issue.
“At times the response is enthusiastic,” said our source in the consular corps. “We come out of meetings feeling really good, accomplished. But then nothing happens. We have been invited by the [immigration] department to form an advisory group, but they keep pulling the carpet from under our feet.”
So it was with great excitement that our longshot request to interview the head of Region 5 (northern Thailand) immigration, which oversees Chiang Mai Immigration, was granted.
From the Top
Armed with questions from our readers, we went to the new office along the canal road and met Commander Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit Tungasreni, who disarmingly announced at the beginning of our conversation that he wasn’t privy to the day to day runnings of Chiang Mai Immigration, as his office was an overseer of all things immigration in the north, including all border crossings. His major focus, he explained was on national security, not on visa service. As we were about to layout the grievances submitted by our readers, he cut us short, “I know. It is personnel. I have heard so many complaints recently and realise that that is our biggest shortage right now, leading to so many other problems. Let me explain.”
“Times have changed,” he continued. “Before we used to only look after borders and major ports. Now there are foreigners all over Thailand and this year has been a big year of change in our department. We are in the process of branching our offices out to nearly all provinces in the country. In the north alone, 16 provinces out of 17 will soon have their own immigration offices, with Phrae being the only province we won’t open in. For instance, Pitsanulok has many Filipino teachers, I bet you didn’t know that. So we have to open an office to support and serve them. We really are trying to look into the future and support trends, anticipating potential needs. Soon expats and tourists throughout the north will no longer have to come to Chiang Mai for their visa requirements, this will greatly lessen the burden for Chiang Mai. The problem is that we are in the process of change, and that is causing many problems.”
The Chiang Mai Immigration Office, over crowded with ever-increasing numbers of not just expatriates and tourists, but labourers from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, rather progressively made a deal with Promenada Shopping Mall in 2015, moving some services, such as retirement, medical and tourist visas as well as 90 day reporting to the mall. Over the ensuing months, more services were moved to the mall including business and volunteer visas, reentry permits and general admin. Initial reports were positive, with people reporting of easy parking, mall entertainment during long waits and efficient service. Over the past four to five months however, things have become dire.
“I’m 70 years old, been here most of my life,” wrote one resident of his recent experience. “I have a wife, children and grandchildren and I used to own a company which employed dozens of Thais. Last week I woke up at 3am to start queuing at Promenada at 4am. There were no toilets, it was dark and extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t receive my visa until 3pm that afternoon. Dealing with immigration is the worst part of my life in Thailand, which I love.”
“It is a humanitarian crisis,” agreed our source in the consular corps. “Chiang Mai is very much a retirement capital and a large number of people suffering are the elderly and handicapped. Thais no longer have to queue for government services; look at drivers’ licenses, ID cards, passports, no one queues for more than half an hour. It makes one wonder why they can’t have the same efficiency for foreigners.”
“With so many new offices opening up in the north over the past and coming few months,” explained Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit when we posed this question to him, “experienced personnel had to be drawn from ports such as Chiang Mai and Suvarnabhumi to set them up. This has led to a drastic shortage of staff here in Chiang Mai. I have heard that it was becoming a serious issue and I promise you that we are taking action. I am not in charge of Chiang Mai Immigration, but what I can do is immediately recall personnel from other provinces to help with any shortages. There are 600 staff in the north and I will do it right now after we finish talking,” he promised.
“I also just singed a special fast track service for people over 60 years old, the disabled and pregnant women. This will be in effect immediately,” he added.
“The national policy for immigration now is ‘keep the good guys in and the bad guys out’,” he explained further. “Because of recent terrorism and pressure from the international community, as well as from our own government, to track terrorists who come through our country, or use us as a base, many of our officers are terrified of being blamed if anything goes wrong. This may explain why they are being extra diligent in their application of the rules, which can often lead to the impression that they are being unhelpful. Instead of solving problems, they are instead busy covering all bases so that they do not get into trouble.”
“While our mission is to serve, it is also to protect. Think of Thailand like a party. We need to screen people who come into our party as we don’t want unwelcomed guests who could mess up our party. If our guests are good, then we all enjoy ourselves, but if they take advantage then they can ruin the party for everyone.”
Late last year Chief of Chiang Mai Immigration Police Colonel Rutjapong Saravanangkool set up three committees to solve ongoing problems. The first was the consular corps advisory committee, working under their respective embassies, who were set up to advise the department on how to improve efficiency. An executive committee comprising top immigration officials was also set up as well as a working committee to find solutions to the online appointment system. This last technology working committee was led by Chiang Mai University’s College of Arts, Media and Technology with input by private sector software companies. By early this year they had built an online appointments system which was tested and green lighted for use, to be given for free to Chiang Mai Immigration.
“As with our own committee,” said our consular corps source, “at the last minute everything stopped, the plug was pulled. We kept getting hurdles thrown at us. Nothing has been done since.”
Apart from internal problems, there has been much rumbling, especially online, about corruption.
An interesting result of Citylife’s survey showed that 16% of respondents claim they had either paid, or been asked for bribes from immigration staff, a claim we at Citylife can corroborate and which Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit admits to. “Of course our policy is to stamp out corruption,” he said. “But the truth is that it is harder said than done. We cannot control everyone, but I am hoping to bring in technology to stem this. If we use more technology in every day dealings, as well as put CCTVs in place, I expect the channels for corruption to reduce dramatically. Corruption is the rust that is eroding the foundation of our future development.”
Another more ominous complaint is that of private businesses who appear to have the power to cut queues at immigration…for a price. Especially a company next door to Promenada’s immigration office, G4T. Citylife was unable to ascertain the ownership of this company, though an unnamed source in immigration told us that they had a contract with Chiang Mai Immigration to assist in the documentation process of applying for a visa.
When asked, Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit said that he had just heard about them the previous week and had already put an investigation team on it. “Though to be honest, I am seriously considering outsourcing many of our services. If we had a budget, maybe we will do what many of the embassies are now doing, outsource the paperwork. But if we do this it will be structured, transparent and well thought out,” he insisted.
“While the hassles at immigration has been great for business, I would rather lose money than have this problem persist,” said Christopher McAleer, manager of Chiang Mai Buddy, a one-stop visa service which puts a man in line and assists clients through documentation process so that, for a fee, their immigration experience is a breeze. “Ours is a legitimate professional service. More and more people are willing to pay to avoid the immigration experience.”
Those who can’t afford such companies, however, cry foul. “How is it fair that I am forced to queue from 4am only to be denied service because some company cuts in with five visas to process and takes my spot?” asked a reader. Tensions have certainly run high.
The Big Picture
While the general was adamant that he was going to attempt to solve these immediate problems, he also talked about the big picture.
“We now have many retirees who live here on a small stipend, do not contribute to our economy and are often without medical insurance,” he said of the retired expats, whose numbers, he says is the highest amongst expatriates here in Chiang Mai. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t welcome retirees, but we need to be judicious about who and how we accept them. Right now all they need is 800,000 baht in the bank and they can retire. I think that we need to follow models such as Malaysia whereby retirees have to have mandatory medical insurance in order to retire as well as a financial means of returning home should there be an emergency. I think that that is fair enough, so that they do not cause an economic burden to our country.”
Our source in the consular corps agrees. “The number of retirees this year has increased by 25%, higher than the annual increase of around 20%. If they want to change the laws then I think there is some validity to that, but for those already here, why not treat them better?”
“The current situation at immigration is not helping to meet policy goals,” said Martin Venzky-Stalling, of Chiang Mai Creative City. “The development goals of Chiang Mai has been articulated by the government. Creative economy, smart city, and a digital economy are all the stated futures for Chiang Mai. The government is now promoting MICE tourism and desires to see more international festivals. All these things require expertise on the ground, often by non-Thais. There is also a strengthening trend of investment by digital nomads. No one sits in Hamburg and thinks, ‘I would really like to invest in Chiang Mai!’ But many digital nomads are coming here and seeing Chiang Mai as a good place to set up business and invest. We need to integrate these people and offer them clear-cut avenues to do business here.”
When asked about digital nomads, Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit looked surprised. Quickly scribbling down the words digital nomad, “I didn’t know about this,” he said. “They sound like an attractive group, I need to find out more about them. But then there is the issue of taxation. We can’t tax people who are not legitimately running a business. This is an issue for the national level. We are here to enforce the law, and if the law doesn’t allow these groups of people to work, there is nothing to be done about it on our part.”
“It is a fine balance between pleasing our foreign customers and enforcing the rule of law,” he sighed.
Readers may be frustrated at the lack of facts in this article and that is because Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit is not involved in the minutiae of the Chiang Mai Immigration and we were unable to gain a meeting with Police Colonel Rutjapong Saravanangkool, the man in charge of both the Promenada and airport offices. However, looking at the bigger picture, there is hope for improvement.
“Just two weeks ago, we received the budget to build a new immigration building at the airport location,” beamed the major general. “It will take just over a year to build and once completed we will move out of Promenada and become a one stop efficient service. Unfortunately parking will continue to be a concern, but at least we will have a building large enough to house everything.”
It is not all doom and gloom at immigration, with most of our surveyed respondents insisting that the staff they deal with on a daily basis are helpful and polite, but clearly overwhelmed by the broken system. “This leads to the impression that foreigners are not welcomed in this country,” said one respondent. “Might there be a way for retirees who are financially stable to be treated with more respect and efficiency?” asked another. “Feeling unwanted is awful, feeling helpless is even worse,” bemoaned yet another. “I see how overworked they all are, I really feel for them, I wish their big bosses would spend a day there and see for themselves what a burden they are putting on their subordinates and the rest of us,” suggested a long term resident.
Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit promises that all provincial offices will be open in the next few months, saying that this will offer immediate relief to the problems of shortage of personnel. As to questions from readers regarding policy and law, this is not a regional issue, but one of national policy, which must be taken up with policy makers in Bangkok.
As we go to press, Citylife’s source in the consular corps told us to ask our readers to be patient; that change is coming. Our talk with Pol. Maj. Gen. Bundit held promise, and we will keep our fingers crossed that mounting pressure will lead to reform and efficiency so that so many of you who have chosen to make Chiang Mai home not only feel welcomed by the guardians of our nation’s gates, but no longer have to undergo the regular frustrations of dealing with a department which appears to be struggling to do its job. The time is now for the Chiang Mai Immigration to listen to the cacophony of noise, not just complaints from the people they are there to serve, but to the government whose policies they have yet to align themselves with and to the taxpayers of Thailand who welcome, and benefit from, the globalisation which will only increase the number of people choosing to make Thailand their new home. The immigration department stands at a crossroads. Will they be the department of obstruction or the department of heroes at the gates of the Land of Smiles?
If you would like to issue a complaint about immigration or their related offices, it has been advised that you contact the Damrongdhama Centre by calling 1567 or visiting their website www.damrongdhama.moi.go.th