Trouble in paradise: Thailand and the expatriate experience
OVER the last few decades Thailand has attracted expatriates to the country to work, stay long periods of time to explore the country, or retire.
Thailand attracts many young professionals, particularly to Bangkok. Others work as teachers all around the country, some doing online business or some form of short- or long-term visa. Some operate small businesses with their Thai spouse.
In addition, Thailand has always been a place of interest for the traveller within the SE Asian region, where many like to stay medium- to long-term, sight-seeing, travelling, and ‘just hanging out’.
Retirement in Thailand is part of a global trend of people relocating from high income countries to lower income countries. There are large numbers of expatriates living all around the country, concentrated within the tourist precincts. In addition, clusters of wealthy retirees live in apartments and villas they have purchased or leased, in popular areas like Phuket, Pattaya, Rayong and Chiang Mai.
There is also a high incidence of expatriates married to local women, residing in areas like Isaan in the north-east of Thailand.
The nationalities of expatriates include Europeans, Russians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese.
Just how many expatriates are actually living in Thailand is really an unknown. Various databases exist, but unable to provide any definitive answers to this question.
Various estimates put the expatriate population in Thailand somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million. Formal estimates tend to be on the lower side, as they tend not to include those overstaying illegally in Thailand on expired visas. An article in The Independent estimates that there are even 10,000 homeless expatriates living in Thailand.
Thai authorities have become weary of foreigners or ‘farangs’, as evidenced in the tightening of entry and visa regulations over the last two years. Immigration is turning away people from the borders who they suspect are living and/or working in Thailand on short term visas. New regulations concerning persons who overstay their visas are coming into force, banning them from re-entering Thailand for between one and 10 years.
Thailand is no longer the haven for those who want to domicile themselves in the country like before.
For many the dream of living in Thailand has turned sour, where cultural and social problems have brought abrupt endings their Thai lifestyle.
The writer spoke with a member of the Thai Immigration Police who wanted to remain anonymous. He was able to shed some light on the reasons why Thai authorities are cracking down on the large numbers of people trying to live long-term in Thailand without the right documentation.
The alcohol problem
Thailand’s citizens are heavy consumers of alcohol, and this suits the drinking culture of many expatriates who settle here. Alcohol is both cheap and plentiful.
Expatriates can drink unchecked, to the point where it can become a problem. There are also the associated longer term problems of depression, anxiety, and sickness that are being left unchecked among
Many expatriates marry local girls and settle in places like Issan where there is an embedded drinking culture. Boredom often leads to excess drinking in these remote villages, as expatriates find it very difficult to settle into the local culture.
Unfortunately there are no programs available to solve the expatriate drinking problem in Thailand. This problem has not been formally identified in any health studies, and Thai authorities have no programs or resources to tackle this issue. Likewise, foreign embassies have no responsibilities over these types of issues concerning their nationals, so this problem will most likely continue to grow and fester over time.
Another major issue is depression. Boredom, inability to adjust and settle in, a failed marriage, loss of savings, are some of the causes of deep depression in retirees. Some expatriates come to Thailand with existing problems such as debt in their home country, or leaving wives and children at home, in search of something better. Some just come with not enough money to retire on.
Almost every week there is a report about an expatriate death in a house or hotel room. This is common enough for Pattaya to be called the suicide capital of Thailand.
In addition, with the common demographic of retirees being over 50, so many arrive in Thailand not in the best of health and die here. British figures indicate that there were 389 British deaths alone in Thailand in 2013.
According to statistics collated by the website “Farang Deaths”, 25 percent of foreign deaths in Thailand occur from road accidents, 20 percent from drowning, and 12 percent through other accidental reasons.
Crime among foreigners
News of foreigners being arrested for both petty and serious crimes is common. Foreigners are operating fraud schemes, scams, passport and credit card fraud schemes all over Thailand.
“Foreigners do the crimes and Thailand gets the bad reputation for it,” said the source.
Many foreigners run bars through proxy owners without the right visas. These establishments are sometimes a front for other activities, which are crimes on the books of Thai Law. Many ventures have not followed Thai investment laws, and are flaunting the system in Thailand.
This is particularly rampant within tourist precincts. My source told me that occasionally directives are given to crack down of particular types of activities from time to time.
“It’s our job to carry out these directives ….and it’s the job of the top to allocate our scarce crime fighting resources,” he said. “We have many areas to focus upon, and when we stop focusing on one specific area, the police are accused of being inconsistent and corrupt”.
There is a massive screening problem on long term visa applications. Although police reports may be required when foreigners apply for visas at embassies within their home countries, those that apply for them within Thailand are rarely required to provide police checks. This loophole within the visa system allows many foreigners to reside in Thailand without any proper screening of previous criminal activities.
Another issue cited by our source is that many foreigners are living hand to mouth in Thailand. This includes many on retirement visas. As a consequence many are unable and/or unwilling to seek regular medical check-ups and attention. Not all have medical or even accident insurance, and risk large medical bills if they are unfortunate enough to have an accident or get sick.
When we touched upon visa issues, my source became somewhat emotional and concerned. He said “while many have followed the correct procedures and acquired the correct visas for long-stay residency, there are also many who are dodging this to stay in Thailand, by abusing the system”. Tourist visas and visa exemptions, he explained, are not intended for long-staying foreigners within the Kingdom. Those who have the correct visas will not have any difficulty staying in Thailand. My source saw those who abused the visa system as those who showed no “respect for the legal system of Thailand”.
“Thai culture is very accommodating. However the things many farang do here can be considered ignorant and even rude.”
My source gave the example of loud music often played by neighbours during the day or night. This generally presents little or no problem for a Thai, but some foreigners make complaints about these issues which are culturally acceptable in Thailand. He said that many farangs expect the same cultural standards here in Thailand as they have within their home countries.
Social problems caused by foreign expatriates are likely to increase, particularly as expatriate numbers increase over the coming years, unless measures are put in place by both Thai and foreign governments to assist foreign residents in their stay in Thailand.
Unfortunately these issues are not on any government agenda, for now at least.
Source: Asian Correspondent. Date: 21st March 2016