Immigration Frustrations: An Interview with the Superintendent of Chiang Mai Immigration

In two years we are going to be flooded when ASEAN finally opens its borders. Our facilities are inadequate, as are our personnel. It is going to be a mess.

By | Mon 28 Jan 2013

When Citylife posted on Facebook that we were about to interview the superintendent of Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Lampang Immigration, we were inundated by comments and questions. There were the usual gripes about overcrowded facilities, lengthy queues, inefficient service and seemingly nonsensical laws which appear designed for discomfort rather than any practical purpose. Many readers asked questions about policy and rules, but I had to point out that these are set at a national level and the superintendent is merely an enforcer, so I thought it best to focus on issues which he has some control over. Many of you also wrote in praise of the staff, who are apparently much more polite, helpful and friendly than they were in the past, and expressed sympathy for a team that appears to be overworked and underappreciated.

I printed out your comments – sans names, don’t worry – and gave them all to the superintendent when I met him, and we went over a few of the more pertinent issues.

At the time of the interview, Police Colonel Prachak Awaiyawanont had been on the job for just over a month, having been transferred from Phayao Police Station. He was surprisingly erudite, candid and forthcoming.

Citylife: What is your biggest challenge in this job?

Pol. Col. Prachak: The lack of support from those in charge in Bangkok. Something as simple as staffing; our budget allows for 66 staff, we currently have only 52. The problem is that the hiring comes out of Bangkok and is a long process involving sitting exams, interviews and screenings. Bangkok doesn’t seem to be making any effort to hire the extra 14 staff we so desperately need here. I wish I could just put an ad in the papers and get some people in but they are appointed to me and I have no control. They need to transfer people from elsewhere and they are not doing it.

In two years we are going to be flooded when ASEAN finally opens its borders. Our facilities are inadequate, as are our personnel. It is going to be a mess.

Citylife: There has been much talk about moving immigration into a larger office.

Pol. Col. Prachak: Yes, lots of talk. But so far, no action. I am working closely with the treasury department, making repeated requests for them to give us a building, offer us a provincial budget and land somewhere on the provincial hall’s large area. It should be a one stop service with huge space for future expansion. Right now we have no land, no budget and no plan. I have therefore decided that I am not going to just sit here and wait for someone to give me a piece of land; at least I should try to do something. I have been in talks with McKean Rehabilitation Centre; they have vast tracts of royally-bestowed land and they rely on the largess of donors for survival. Maybe if they can give us some of their land, we can build an office, put a large ‘Thank You McKean’ sign up, and some of the many people who use our services may want to donate and help them out in return. It is early days yet, but with thousands of people who come through immigration, McKean could benefit too. But being a bureaucracy, everything is slow here.

Citylife: How many people do you serve each day?

Pol. Col. Prachak: Normally we see between 800 – 1,000 people per day. 52 staff is not adequate for this. Every time I beg Bangkok for resources I am simply told, “Just make it work with what you have.” How can I when my powers, my budget, my staff, my time, my resources are so limited? We are constantly told how slow we are and I am frustrated too. I don’t enjoy being told that we are not doing a good job. But what can I do? We want to implement an online system for the 90 days reporting, but again it has to be approved by Bangkok. We have already created a system for the hotels and guesthouses – all of which have to send us reports within 24 hours of a foreign national checking in. This is a huge amount of work. The reason for this is so we can catch international criminals. The fine is 2,000 baht per day if the guesthouse or hotel doesn’t report in, and with 1,400 guesthouses and hotels, that is a lot of reporting. The system is also set up to monitor any mafia activity, though I am glad to say that so far there are no international gangs working out of Chiang Mai

Citylife: One of the biggest gripes with many of our expatriate readers is the 90 day reporting. What are your thoughts on this? 

Pol. Col. Prachak: The 90 day reporting is a serious bureaucratic burden. But I understand why the law makers put it in place. If you have a foreign employee and they leave your company, you may be obliged to report to us, but we won’t know where the foreigner has gone. By asking them to report every 90 days we know where in Thailand they are and can find them if they commit a crime or for any other reason. They need to sign in somewhere and we can rediscover their footprint again when they do so. It is our way of monitoring movement in the work force. Even if they put the required 800,000 baht in the bank, they can withdraw it any time and disappear. In other countries perhaps there are better tax systems or other ways of monitoring people’s movements and finding them, but here this is the best way to know where aliens are.

Citylife: It has been pointed out that Burmese, Laotians and Cambodians do not receive the same treatment as other nationalities do here.

Pol. Col. Prachak: Again, this is Bangkok policy from the Bangkok system. The budget is different as are their requirements. At least we have now solved the parking problems. When we recently moved the processing for Burmese, Laotian and Cambodian visas here there was no parking so they were lining the roads causing endless traffic jams each morning. The traffic police would then come and clamp their bikes, so they not only had to take the time off work but they had to pay a songtaew as well as a fine to get their bike back. This was too much for many of these people who have very low income. Now, I have negotiated with the head of the Chiang Mai airport and he has kindly given us the land next to our office for parking. The road is now clearer and looks much better.

Citylife: Surely with all the fines you have plenty of money to play with.

Pol. Col. Prachak: We collect over 100 million baht per year. It gets sent down to Bangkok and we receive back far less than 20%. We are the window to Thailand for foreign eyes and it is embarrassing right now how we look. I don’t understand why but customs gets vast budgets – just look at the Mae Sai customs building in comparison to its immigration office which is the size of a box. You tell me why! All I can do is try out different systems to streamline processes. Some work well, others we have to scrap, but I am learning. I also am very serious about implementing the Pretty Smile Project. If people have to wait here all day, at least they can look at a friendly face. No more grumpy immigration staff. I insist that they be happy, friendly, helpful, smiley, well dressed, polite, black-haired, white-teethed, softly spoken and greet people well.

Citylife: You sound very frustrated at Bangkok’s lack of response. Can our readers write in letters and help put pressure on the authorities? What else can we do? Are you not worried that you are going to get into trouble by complaining to the media?

Pol. Col. Prachak: Yes, they can send letters to the Prime Minister’s office. That would be best. And don’t worry about visa repercussions, no one has the time or the energy to chase after a letter writer! I am retiring in two years so I really don’t care what they think of me. What can they do? I want to achieve something before I retire. I can sit here and wait for retirement or I can do something for my country. I want to reach a goal and I want to be effective. I want my legacy to be the man who cleaned up and improved Chiang Mai immigration; that would be a great exit for me. So I am going to give interviews to the media, I am going to keep lobbying the government, I want to ask your readers to get active and I want help from Bangkok. If we don’t start counting at one, we will never get to ten. At this rate we won’t have a new office for another ten years! I have no power, I need the media, I need more voices behind me.  The more ideas and suggestions we have to send to Bangkok the better. If you don’t get into the ring, how can you become a champion?

Citylife has set up a petition, so that we can all put our names down and effect change in central government policies. Let’s make our voices heard!