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Thais working illegally flock home raising fears of virus spread

Mar 06,2020
Thousands of Thai workers staying in Korea illegally are expected to flock home amid the new coronavirus outbreak, sparking serious concerns in Thailand over adequate quarantine measures for the returnees.

In response to the concerns, the Thai government on Wednesday said it would quarantine all Thai workers returning from Korea, a step up from its initial plan to ask workers to voluntary self-quarantine.

The government later clarified it would especially be making sure to isolate those who have been working in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang region, the center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.



Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Wednesday, according to the Bangkok Post, that the Thai returnees would be first screened in South Korea, and those with a fever would not be allowed to board flights. Thai nationals working illegally returning from the Daegu and the Gyeongsang area would be quarantined for 14 days upon returning to the country at a location yet to be decided, he added.

This came after Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, according to the Bangkok Post Tuesday, initially said that the returned workers from Korea will be put into voluntary self-quarantine.

The self-quarantine, however, would not be enforceable as there is no law requiring them to be isolated as Korea has not declared a lockdown, like in the case of China’s Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak.

While the large-scale return of the Thai workers is mainly due to Seoul’s immigration policy encouraging overstayers to leave voluntarily, others are returning due to the coronavirus outbreak, which sparked fears about a spread of the infection in Thailand.

There are some 20,000 Thai nationals working legally in Korea, but an estimated 140,000 workers are illegally staying in the country.

Thai authorities estimate the return of some 10,000 nationals amid the outbreak in Korea; however, the actual numbers could be higher.

According to Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, some 136 illegal workers who have applied to return home have been living in Daegu.

Some 4,000 illegal workers have reportedly returned to Thailand since December, but Thai officials are alarmed that many returning illegal workers are from Daegu, considered the center of the virus outbreak in Korea.

Thailand’s Immigration Bureau reported Wednesday that 19 of 180 Thai workers who arrived back from South Korea through airports in the past three days were feverish and were quarantined for examination, according to the Bangkok Post. They later tested negative for the virus.

The other 161 workers were reported as not having symptoms and were allowed to return home right away but asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, the incubation period of the virus.

Thailand’s Disease Control Department said workers returning from Korea will undergo the same screening method as the one applied to returnees from China. Korea has the highest number of reported new coronavirus cases outside mainland China at the moment, mostly concentrated in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang region.

Thailand’s military hospitals have been floated as possible facilities that can be used for the isolation of the Thai returnees, according to officials, but there have already been indications that they don’t provide enough space.

Thus, there is continued confusion over Thailand’s unclear and inconsistent position on the quarantine procedures for countries affected by the virus.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul initially announced on Facebook Tuesday that visitors from affected countries - including China, South Korea, Japan, Germany, France, Singapore, Italy and Iran -would be subjected to a 14-day quarantine without exceptions, but later removed the post.

When Thailand evacuated some 138 of its nationals from Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province early last month, they were quarantined for 14 days in a naval resort in Sattahip.

Thailand has reported 43 confirmed cases and one death from the coronavirus.

The Korean government has been strengthening policies to crack down on illegal workers in the country since last year, and the Justice Ministry has been offering a voluntary departure period for overstayers to leave the country without penalty through the end of this month.

The Korean Justice Ministry has also offered incentives for the foreigners to reenter the country legally if certain conditions are met. However, starting July 1, illegal sojourners - even when choosing a voluntary departure - will face fines.

The Korean and Thai justice ministries signed a memorandum of understanding last November for bilateral cooperation in efforts to prevent Thai nationals from illegally staying in Korea.

Korea and Thailand have a mutual 90-day visa waiver system, and Thai illegal workers have used this program to enter the country first and then find jobs.

The Korean Justice Ministry announced Thursday that in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, illegal workers wanting to leave the country can apply to do so online through next Wednesday and avoid having to visit immigration offices in person.

In October last year, the ministry introduced a system of preliminary declaration of voluntary departure for illegal immigrants to leave the country.

The ministry estimates that on average 1,000 to 2,000 illegal immigrants have departed the country through this procedure. Between Feb. 24 and March 1, there were 5,306 illegal workers who made voluntary departures.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]