Photo: Jérémy Stenuit
In the midst of the COVID-19 global outbreak, 5,000 Thais in South Korea are asking to come home. First question, will they be allowed? Second question, where will they be quarantined?
Unlike those Thais evacuated from Wuhan last month, these 5,000 are illegal workers, dubbed not-so-affectionately as #ผีน้อย, which means “little ghosts.” South Korean immigration estimated there are around 140,000 undocumented Thai workers in the country.
The issue of illegal Thai workers in South Korea goes deeper than COVID-19. On Twitter, #ผีน้อย is trending in the top 5 this morning, as netizens are divided over the fate of the 5,000. Many are asking the government to bring them home. While many others are not so generous.
One netizen posted: “Let them die there. They make life difficult for Thais traveling to South Korea. No wonder Koreans hate Thais. It’s because there are so many #ผีน้อย.”
“I’m confused. Seriously, they are a burden, from since they went there and now asking to come back. No need to ask about conscience. They don’t have any to begin with.”
South Korea is a popular destination for K-pop obsessed Thais. Each year, between 500,000 to 600,000 Thais travel there, for purposes of tourism, business or plastic surgery. There have long been complaints by Thai travelers that they face strict measures at airport immigration, as well as prejudices from South Koreans.
This is because the high amount of illegal Thai workers there have caused South Korean immigration to be vigilant, and South Koreans to be wearied. As such, illegal Thai workers in South Korea bear the brunt of not only prejudices by South Koreans, but also by Thais.
When asked by reporters, Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu krua-ngam gave a very Wisanu Krua-ngam answer.
He explained that details are still sketchy. However, legally the illegal workers should be allowed to return home. Nonetheless, currently both Thailand and South Korea have measures against their citizens traveling to “high risk” countries. But the people in question are in South Korea illegally, therefore it is South Korea’s discretion on whether or not to seek legal actions against them. Therefore, returning to Thailand is a different issue.
Furthermore, the deputy prime minister said that the government has requested those Thais currently abroad to stay put, including students and government officials.
As such, the likely answer to the first two questions is, the 5,000 are not going anywhere soon.
Update- March 3, 2020: According to Kom Chad Luk, eight undocumented Thai workers have returned from South Korea. Immigration says two of them might have COVID-19. The two have been sent to a hospital, while the other six are still under quarantine.