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Coming to the end of the visa run – local language schools may suffer most

As thousands of long-term expats fear for the future amid a crackdown on the improper use of visas and exemptions, it could be local language schools that end up suffering most

In the past five years, Jon has travelled in and out of Thailand more than 60 times, using up four passports in the process. His travels have included short trips to neighbouring countries, including Singapore and Cambodia, and some summer breaks at home in the United Kingdom. Most of his trips were merely a walk out and walk in at the border, commonly known as a visa run among the thousands of expats living in Thailand without proper work or residency permits.

The school that hired Jon to teach English does not provide him with a work permit, meaning he must rely on monthly visa runs to continue his stay in the country he now considers home.

“I have been employed full-time by a private language school, but I have never obtained a work permit,” he said. “The school says the cost [of obtaining a permit] is high and it will be an investment risk on their part to provide paperwork for us when there is such a high turnover of English-language teachers in Thailand.”

Until recently, Jon had no problems making repeated visa runs. With as little as 3,000 baht in his pocket, he could take a van from the On Nut area to the border province of Sa Kaeo. From there, he could cross into Cambodia’s Poi Pet province, spend some time scouring the veritable sea of second-hand goods at Rong Kluea market, before walking back to Thailand and getting an extension of his tourist visa for another 30 days.

But last week, after a two-week stay in Singapore, Jon’s passport came under close scrutiny. After landing at Don Mueang airport, he, along with 12 other people, were taken aside by immigration officers who were concerned by the number of entry stamps inside their passports.

In the end, Jon was allowed to enter. But in the future, he is unlikely to be so lucky.

The Immigration Bureau has been tightening its enforcement of visa rules. Announced in May, the crackdown has already been enforced at some border crossings to prevent in-out visa runs, but will also extend to consulates and embassies issuing multiple back-to-back tourist visas. Tough new penalties will also be introduced for visa overstays, particularly those caught by authorities.

Pol Col Voravat Amornvivat, deputy commander of the bureau’s Investigation Division, said the crackdown is about ensuring foreign residents in Thailand meet the right level of “quality”.

“We want to make it easy for good people who are willing to follow the law to stay, but we want to make it difficult and impossible for those who abuse the law to remain here illegally,” he said.

PERMISSION TO WORK

Jon is now preparing to return to Singapore again in a couple of weeks; immigration staff stamped him into Thailand for only 30 days.

In the long run, obtaining a work permit would prove far cheaper than making frequent trips out of the country. But the requirements to work here legally are strict, both for individuals and for the employers who must sponsor the application.

In most cases, teachers who work in private or public schools nationwide must hold at least a bachelor’s degree. But the industry is known for its high turnover, and schools are mostly unwilling to lodge the paperwork required to support a work permit application for a teacher who is likely to leave within a year.

Spectrum contacted Jon’s employer, a well-established English-language school with several branches across the country, and was told by the visa section there that paperwork is covered for all teachers.

“When we first hire teachers, they usually have a tourist visa,” the school said. “But after 90 days we will apply for a non-immigrant B visa for them at the Immigration headquarters on Chaeng Watthana Road, and later we will be working towards obtaining a work permit while they might extend their stay by doing a visa run once or twice during that time.”

During his five years working for the institution, however, Jon said he has never even come close to obtaining a work permit, despite being a university graduate and holding a teaching certificate.

Ms Pam runs First Study Service, a recruitment agency which supplies English teachers to public and private schools across the country. She insists the responsibility to secure work permits rests solely on the schools which employ her teachers. “My agency does not cover work permit provisions because it acts mainly as a consultant to schools that wish to hire native English speakers as teachers,” she said. “After our teachers are hired by the schools, they will be responsible for the paperwork.” Ms Pam said one of the biggest barriers for schools sponsoring work permits is that many teachers — particularly those aged under 30 — have no intention of staying in Thailand long-term. She said many only remain in the country for a year before moving on.

Ms Pam said teachers applying for work through her agency will first go through a recruitment centre which will provide them with a teaching certificate. Those who fit the requirements — including holding at least a bachelor’s degree — will then be approached by her agency.

Later, she will offer what she calls a “consultancy service” to schools that wish to employ the teachers.

The school will negotiate a monthly salary directly with the teacher, usually between 35,000 and 45,000 baht, and First Study Service will claim a small service fee. The contract between the teacher and the school is by semester, which Ms Pam said is a reflection of the high turnover rate of teachers. “Most teachers, who are also travellers, do not plan to settle in Thailand.”

SCHOOL’S OUT

Ms Pam said that even though it is still too soon to know the full effects of the visa-run crackdown, she predicts changes will be seen when schools begin recruiting teachers for the second semester in November.

“The schools will have to bear higher costs in recruiting and will be under more pressure to fill vacant jobs for teachers. They might find it more difficult to hire teachers as the number of teachers working inside the country might decline. Moreover, the higher cost of paperwork processing might lead to increased salaries for teachers [to reduce turnover],” she said.

“I think this measure will ultimately affect schools in the longer term.”

Andrew Biggs, the founder of Andrew Biggs Academy which offers English-language courses and consultancy services to schools nationwide, also believes schools will be effected, particularly in terms of education quality.

“There are 40,000 schools nationwide under the supervision of Obec [the Office of the Basic Education Commission] and the English curriculum that they offer must be delivered through native speakers,” he said.

“It is true that some subjects can be handled by people of other nationalities including Filipino, but I fear the departure of native speakers to countries like Japan, Vietnam or South Korea which can pay teachers more.

“The loss will be on Thai education.”

EF English Proficiency Index, the world’s largest report of its kind, ranked Thailand 55th — ahead of only Panama, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — on a list of 60 countries in its latest report, released last November. In 2010, Thailand was ranked 116th out of 163 countries surveyed for Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) performance.

But while there are fears of a short-term dip in English education quality, some industry experts see the visa clampdown as an opportunity to professionalise the industry.

Garth Marshall, 48, director of study at ECC Language School, said tighter enforcement of immigration rules would eventually bring positive results to the country’s schools.

“Eventually the English-teaching industry will be professionalised as foreign teachers will have to enrol in a one-month training course, obtain a certificate and be better qualified as a teacher,” he said. “We can work with recruitment agencies that can screen the teachers for us. There might be some difference in terms of fees, but we are willing to put in a lot more work to find suitable teachers.”

A staff member at a private language school where Jon used to work said: “The process will not affect foreigners who really intend to teach. They will have to accept the new procedure if they really want to be a teacher.”

LOOKING FOR LOOPHOLES

The looming clampdown on visa runs is already fuelling a rush for foreign nationals to legitimise their stay in Thailand. One industry likely to feel the positive effects of this is Thai-language education, since foreign nationals who enrol to study Thai in certified schools are eligible for long-term education visas.

While some muay Thai camps can arrange non-immigrant B visas for long-term students, language schools are far more popular. One Pattaya visa agent told Spectrum that a language course would look much better on a visa application than a muay Thai course.

But, officially at least, you have to attend the classes or the school will not provide the necessary paperwork to complete the 90-day renewals.

Unofficially, however, many schools are not so stringent with their attendance requirements. Posing as a prospective student, Spectrum contacted several Thai language schools in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, and found a range of standards, from the scrupulous to some that act as little more than visa mills.

Several schools said it would be possible to enrol in a 200-hour course and obtain a one-year visa without having to attend any classes at all.

They did warn, however, that immigration officers are likely to conduct spot interviews, in Thai, during 90-day renewal procedures. Students who fail to demonstrate any proficiency in the language risk having their visa revoked. The schools said they would not be held liable if a student has their visa cancelled after failing to attend classes.

But even if students do attend classes, the 200-hour minimum annual requirement to obtain a visa works out at a little less than four hours per week, a small burden to shoulder those looking to extend their stay here. While holding an education visa does not entitle a foreigner to gain employment in Thailand, the reality is that many are still able to work as English teachers due to the lax recruitment standards employed by most schools.

STAMPING THEIR AUTHORITY

An officer in the Aranyaprathet immigration office in Sa Kaeo province, one of the most popular spots for in-out visa runs, revealed to Spectrum that officers had been conducting stricter checks on passports for several months. Foreigners with two or three back-to-back re-entry stamps were mostly being turned away, she said.

A high-ranking officer at Songkhla’s Sadao Immigration Centre, who also asked not to be named, said officers in the South had been ordered to launch a crackdown on visa runs and overstays from the middle of last month. Nationalities on the watch list include Russian, South Korean and Filipino, the officer said.

However, the officer was dubious about whether the crackdown would solve the problem of visa abusers, saying people could still find ways to cheat the system.

A source inside the Immigration Bureau said border officers have been ordered to request travel documents such as tickets, proof of funds and documents showing proof of accommodation.

The source was confident the measure would not deter the millions of legitimate tourists who enter the country every year.

Harvie, 26, who runs the blog A Farang Abroad, says he is from the UK, earns money in Australia, and spends up to nine months of the year in Thailand to take advantage of the warm weather and good food. He complained that the new measures would make it difficult for people like him who are legal and help the economy.

“I know they are trying to crack down on people working here illegally, but why would Western people work here illegally? The average wage in Australia is around A$25-30 (750-900 baht) per hour,’’ he said,

‘‘People ask me what I do in Thailand; I just tell them I have fun.”

But the visa-run crackdown is likely to prompt many expats to reconsider their plans to remain in Thailand. New overstay penalties are proposed for October, which if approved would include being banned from entering Thailand for between one and 10 years. They would also mean obtaining a valid visa is more important than ever for those foreigners living here illegally. Previous overstay rules mandated only fines of 500 baht per day up to a maximum of 20,000 baht.

Jon, the English teacher, is also giving more thought to his short-term and long-term goals. “I might plan a short holiday in Europe in the near future, but in the long run I might have to obtain a work permit through my local business contacts here.”

The side effect of this measure, he adds, is that it could discourage some foreigners from coming here. “I came to Thailand because it is a good destination and easy to travel to, but some will be discouraged from coming here in the future because of this measure.”

If it proves too difficult for expats to stay and work in Thailand long-term, local businesses catering to Western clients will also feel the pinch.

“Many foreigners message me on my website that they are worried about coming here because they feel they could get rejected for a visa,” blogger Harvie said.

“In the future, a lot of hotels and tour companies are going to be hurt, as Western people bring in a lot of money. I think condo prices may fall too, as there won’t be enough people filling them. “I agree that people should not be working here illegally under the wrong visa and I hope that they do stop that. But I hope that the new changes will not affect people like me, who just come and spend extended periods of time in Thailand.”

‘QUALITY’ CONTROL

Pol Col Voravat stressed to Spectrum that the cancellation of in-out visa runs would not affect any foreigner who was in the country legally.

He explained that there was no change to the policy itself, only to the extent in which it is being enforced.

“There will be no one who is here with honest intentions affected by this stricter enforcement,” Pol Col Voravat said. “Good people will lose nothing and gain a lot more privileges for following the law. Those who will suffer from the enforcement are those who are here in the wrong way to begin with. People who are really here to work, travel or retire will definitely not affected by it.”

Pol Col Voravat explained that immigration officers would still be allowed to use their discretion when choosing to deny or allow entry, meaning backpackers and other tourists spending long periods travelling in Southeast Asia would not be affected provided they can prove their intention to travel, rather than reside, in Thailand.

“If the online system shows that you have stayed here for 30 days, then left the country for one day, and wish to come back in again, we will interview you,” Pol Col Voravat explained. “If your reason for returning is not satisfactory, we have no choice but to reject your right of entry on the spot. We are more than welcoming to foreigners who wish to come to work, stay and retire here. But they should be a quality person. They should at least have enough money to be able to take care of themselves.”

Thai Visa

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