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Heavy-handed Yet flexible: The Thai Government’s Adaptability in the Face of COVID-19
| Kenneth Lau | Charmaine Leow

Heavy-handed Yet flexible: The Thai Government’s Adaptability in the Face of COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to unfold across the globe and governments worldwide have taken on a range of containment strategies, we have quietly observed the Kingdom of Thailand rolling out a decisive response through the implementation of its Emergency Decree, B.E. 2548.

The almost-immediate implementation of the Emergency Decree shuttered large sectors of the Kingdom’s economy, surprising many observers (and foreign nationals in Thailand, of course). What followed was the imposition of a strict set of curfews and severe limitations of movement within and into the country, followed eventually by some measure of flexibility.

Government Responses (and the Evolution of those Responses)

The rapid changes saw Thai government offices adapting quickly to the new social distancing norm. For example, the Employment Department swiftly limited the number of physical applications being submitted to its office to avoid potential contact between applicants and government staff. This drastically reduced the number of visitors. The officers at the Board of Investment (BOI), which also accepts applications for work authorisation for certain companies in Thailand, implemented similar restrictions and encouraged the shift to online for queries and applications. In the government’s view, these actions allowed for the continued functioning of operations as best as possible (i.e., to minimise or avoid a backlog of applications), while also ensuring the enforcement of social distancing measures. This meant essential, on-the-ground staff were able to work, ensuring applications continued to be processed within that framework.

In the midst of these changes by the Employment Department, the Immigration Bureau was faced with the issue of foreign nationals who were stuck in the Kingdom with expiring visas. Initially, the government allowed these individuals to apply for a visa extension (even if they normally would not be eligible for it), but they were required to apply in person. Reports surfaced that foreign nationals were congregating at the Immigration Bureau for these extensions, representing a potential risk of exposure to COVID-19. As a result, the government made the visa extensions automatic, no longer requiring foreign nationals to flock to the Immigration Bureau office to apply.

The key takeaway from this has been the flexibility of the Thai authorities in responding to challenges. For example, there were cases in which foreign nationals had yet to apply for their long-stay visas (as their cases were caught in the middle of the pandemic) and had to apply for the concession, but could not. After the Immigration Bureau acted relatively quickly in refashioning the visa extension into an automatic one, these individuals’ situations were rectified.

Practical Exceptions to the Travel Ban

The Emergency Decree was also mirrored in the regulations and rules promulgated by other government agencies. One of these agencies was the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT), which introduced a ban on all non-essential flights into and out of Thailand. When the Emergency Decree and travel ban were later extended, the Thai authorities then introduced “softer” concessions to allow some entry into Thailand, again, highlighting the flexibility of the government, including for work permit holders or other foreign nationals who had been granted permission by a government agency.

However, foreign nationals keen on entering the Kingdom during the travel ban would also have to produce several documents, such as a Certificate of Entry into the Kingdom of Thailand and a Declaration Form from the Thai Embassy in their country of origin, a Fit-to-fly Health Certificate and health insurance (covering at least USD 100,000 in medical expenses). By allowing a pathway for foreign nationals to enter the Kingdom, albeit in a very document-heavy fashion, the Thai authorities are slowly easing their lockdown measures, while being deliberate in minimising the potential to increase exposure to the virus from abroad.

What’s Next?

In anticipation of the upcoming lifting of the Emergency Decree (now planned for the end of July) and the lifting of (some parts of) the international flight ban from 1 July 2020, we will certainly find ourselves juggling the government’s role in managing containment of the virus and the desire for, and of, foreign nationals to re-enter the Kingdom. As indicated above, the initially strict measures are now being relaxed incrementally. This is an especially significant move in reviving a heavily tourism-reliant economy.

However, it would be quite safe to assume that the supporting document requirements that have so far been introduced for those wishing to avail of the concessions, such as the Consular-issued certifications and the proof of health insurance, will continue far beyond the end of the Emergency Decree. Indeed, it will be important to keep in mind that quarantine and safe-distancing measures are likely to still remain in place, and look to be the new normal, even after foreign nationals are permitted to return to the country. Thailand’s handling of the pandemic, which initially was quite severe with respect to restrictions, and which was followed by a gentle easing with some carefully balanced concessions, gives us hope that the new normal will be here soon.

This blog is part of Fragomen’s APAC Insight Series, which aims to help navigate the uncertainties as borders reopen and remobilisation of workforce resumes. Please stay tuned for more regionally focused blogs and videos. If you have any comments, would like us to share any topics or have any questions on Thailand immigration to be addressed in our COVID-19 series, please do not hesitate to contact your Fragomen immigration professional, Kenneth Lau, at [email protected], or Charmaine Leow, at [email protected].

This blog was released on 8 July 2020 and, due to the circumstances, there are frequent changes. To keep up to date with all the latest updates on global immigration, please visit our COVID-19 microsite, subscribe to our alerts and follow us on LinkedIn