Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha directed officials on Thursday to assist tens of thousands of Thais still stranded in Malaysia to come home after borders were sealed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the same day, Thai authorities lifted requirements for returnees to present health certificates before entering the country, which many had said were costly and difficult to obtain.
Prayuth gave the order during a meeting of the national anti-coronavirus task force, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told reporters.
“The prime minister told the foreign ministry to facilitate, take good care of [the workers] in which the ministry did so adequately in all [Malaysian] states, in cooperation with volunteers,” Don said.
In mid-April, Thai authorities re-opened five of nine checkpoints along Thailand’s southern border to allow the return of a controlled number of Thai workers, who were stuck in Malaysia because of that country’s COVID-19 lockdown.
The Thai premier issued his instructions a day after five members of parliament from the country’s southern provinces urged him to revoke the requirement that returnees provide health certificates before they could be allowed to cross the border.
One of the MPs, Anwar Salaeh, told reporters that the requirement was financially prohibitive for the returnees, leading many to “seek other ways of returning to Thailand, including forging documents or crossing the border illegally.”
A spokesman for the national anti-COVID task force said Thursday that authorities had deployed field medical teams at the border to check up on the health of workers who could not obtain fit-to-travel certificates.
“There are some workers who already followed the procedure. But for those who can’t, we are arranging medical teams from southern provinces to give them medical checkup instead,” Dr. Taweesilp Wissanuyothin, spokesman for the task force, told BenarNews.
Thailand and Malaysia had agreed to allow up to 350 Thai citizens to cross into Thai territory each day via the five checkpoints, starting on April 18. The re-entry program aimed to facilitate the return of some 40,000 Thai workers, most of whom worked in restaurants in Malaysia.
But Thailand shut down one of the border checkpoints on April 22 after two officers tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 70 other officers who worked there were placed under quarantine. That checkpoint has been re-opened after it was closed until April 29 while being fumigated and disinfected, officials said
Thailand, which has a population of about 70 million, has temporarily sealed its borders to non-resident foreign nationals, as a safeguard to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus on its soil.
Thai health authorities on Thursday reported three new coronavirus infections, taking the cumulative national tally of cases to 2,992, with no new deaths. It has recorded a death toll of 55 since January, but authorities said they were considering easing restrictions, including re-opening more businesses next week after lifting restrictions on some businesses and activities this week.
As a result of the new cases dwindling into single digits, the nation could expand its coronavirus testing, potentially reaching up to 400,000 tests, almost double its current level, according to Taweesilp, the task force’s spokesman.
In the southern border region, facilities have been set up on the Thai side of the frontier to quarantine returnees upon their arrival.
More than 7,200 Thais who were stranded in Malaysia have returned through the border as of May 6, according to Thai foreign ministry. That number includes more than 2,100 who entered illegally by foot or through small boats, it said.
Those who took illicit routes had been fined and placed into quarantine on the Thai side, officials said.
Thai academics and diplomats in Kuala Lumpur interviewed by BenarNews had estimated that about 100,000 Thais work in Malaysia.
The Yala-based Thai Islam Medical Association (TIMA), which works with Thai diplomats to coordinate the safe return of the Thai workers, told BenarNews that 40,000 had expressed intentions to return home, but only 11,000 had signed up with the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Thai workers complain of confusion over requirements
On the Malaysian side of the border, workers interviewed by BenarNews complained about issues with online registration, and alleged that the Thai government had made it difficult for them to return home.
“I can’t go home because the Thai government said only 300 people can register daily. The problem is with the registration,” said Azmi Mohamad, a 42-year-old cook from Narathiwat.
“Every day, I tried to register but failed. It’s hard to get through the online registration,” he said. “The Malaysian government has made things easy, but the Thai government is making it hard for us to return home.”
Nujarin Pong, 35, a masseuse from Yala, said she also had a tough time understanding the online forms.
“I would like to go home but I do not know how to fill up a travel form online. Many of my friends here are illiterate,” Nujarin said. “Many of my friends are stranded here because of that.”
Ramuna Ali, 19, echoed the workers’ issues with the online registration requirement.
“I tried to register online for several times, but I failed,” said Ramuna, a restaurant worker in the Malaysian west coast state of Selangor.
“We came from Yala and we want to go home, but we can’t even go out to get certificate and we don’t have much cash,” she told BenarNews. “I hope Prayuth could hear our plight.”