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Phuket's Immigration Volunteers are a lifeline for both tourists and residents

Everyone who has visited or lived in Phuket for more than a few months will have likely made a pilgrimage to the Phuket Immigration Office – it’s a more or less unavoidable part of life for foreigners on the island.

tourism, immigration,


Mark Knowles

Sunday 14 May 2017, 09:00AM


You might remember being greeted by one of the friendly, white-shirted foreigners that man the desk at the entrance to immigration office – asking you what you need to get done that day, help you organise your paperwork and fill out the necessary forms.

What you may not have realised, is that despite appearances, these patient and helpful souls are not paid employees of the Immigration Department, but community-minded volunteers who selflessly donate their time and effort to making our time in Thailand that little bit easier.

Day-in, day-out this tireless team of volunteers help people from every corner of the globe deal with the often complicated and opaque bureaucracy of Thailand’s Department of Immigration.

But hasn’t always been so. The group traces its roots back to 2004 and the devastating tsunami that hit Phuket – wreaking havoc, death and injury on thousands of Thais, tourists and expats who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the wake of the tsunami the need for translators soared, as foreigners caught in the maelstrom struggled to find lost loved ones, seek medical aid, communicate with authorities and begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

This urgent demand was quickly filled by volunteers, many of them long-term residents of Phuket, who found their language skills could provide essential help for victims. 

The post-tsunami recovery effort forged a deep sense of community spirit for those involved and it was during this time the seeds were sown for what would become two of Phuket’s most dedicated foreign volunteer groups.

“That [post-tsunami translation volunteering] was so successful that the government decided they wanted to create something like this on a permanent basis,” says Gerar Teuben, spokesman for the Phuket Immigration Volunteers.

“So they created the Tourist Police Volunteers. Then the Immigration Department saw the work they were doing and said they wanted to do something similar. So we started the Immigration Volunteers,” he adds.

Initially organised and overseen by the Phuket Tourist Police, the Phuket Immigration Volunteers quickly grew and evolved – eventually separating from the Tourist Police and coming under the command of the Phuket Immigration Chief.

It is also a uniquely Phuketian phenomenon: despite Thailand’s huge tourism industry and vibrant expat community, nowhere else in the country is there a volunteer group like it.

For Gerar, a nine-year veteran of the group, being an immigration volunteer provides immense satisfaction – knowing that he is giving something back to the place he has made his home and assisting countless others who want to visit or live here.

“I have lived in Phuket for 28 years and about nine years ago a friend asked me if I wanted to be an immigration volunteer. I had also been asked to join the Tourist Police, but that wasn’t really for me. I don’t like the bars – it’s a very difficult job. So when I looked at immigration, I saw that you could really help people with their problems,” he says.

While it may be slightly calmer than working a Tourist Police volunteer, Gerar says he still often sees people in very difficult circumstances.

“You see people coming in very desperate and almost crying, but you can help them and they come away smiling and happy,” says Gerar.

C and C Marine

Gerar is one of a close-knit team of 12 (together they speak 14 languages) who each volunteer for two days a week to ensure there is always someone on hand to help visitors to the immigration office.

With this heavy workload, Gerar says the group is always looking to recruit new members.
Along with fellow spokesman Olaf Taenzer, Gerar is putting out a call to anybody who might be interested in volunteering to get in touch.

They are particularly hoping to recruit Russian and Chinese speakers, which are in hot demand due to the rise in visitor numbers from these countries in recent years.

Gerar says the that the group is not only about the work – it’s also underscored by strong friendships between members. The multi-national group often gets together for social events and recently took part in a team-building trip to Khao Lak.

“It’s very much a friendship group too,” says Gerar. “We have Dutch, German, English, Australian, French and other members, from about eight countries in all – but our working language is English,” he adds.

Gerar says there are a few essential traits you need to be an immigration volunteer.
“You have to be willing to help other people.

You have to be able to tolerate a level of stress because people aren’t always happy with the answers they get from immigration. You have to be service minded, if you can’t do that, it’s not the job for you,” he says.

“Normally, of the people we help, 80% are happy, 15% are okay, and maybe 5% are unhappy. But we have full backup from the officers to help us. We have a very good relationship with the immigration officers,” adds Gerar.

So after nine years at the coal face, what advice does Gerar have for people when dealing with Thai Immigration?

“Check your passport stamp when you leave airport immigration counter – a mistake can create a lot of problems if not noticed or fixed accordingly. Also, check the dates of your stamps and don’t overstay – it is a criminal offence and you could be blacklisted,” he says.

Most importantly, says Gerar, “Dress appropriately and remember to keep a big smile, if you have problems, keep smiling. If you get angry, you get nothing. Try to solve your problems with a big smile – it really helps.”

Surely sound advice for life in general here in the Land of Smiles.

 

For more information or enquiries about becoming a Phuket Immigration Volunteer visit: http://piv-phuket.com, email PIV.information@gmail.com or call 090-1707360 (English) or 090-8622785 (German).

 

 

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bojon | 18 May 2017 - 15:56:05

I am interfering in this discussion as a member of Skandinaver på Phuket.  I do not know who nasa1234 represents.  Alf is not thrown out of PIV. Further, he is as before available, privately, to advise us on visa matters as he already was for a long time, since he for the last years worked in the business visa section not in the retirement visa section. As per request I hope I already have found a replacement for early August. Further to Captain Jack, the alternative is as e.g. in Spain, you have to pay for an interpreter, coming with a friend is not accepted.  Do remember e.g. old Swedes here do not even speak English, and even less so thai in general.  You, English speaking people assume too much.

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Merijn | 15 May 2017 - 17:55:13

They have a website but are not allowed yet to publish official links and forms.
The European lady at Patong Immigration office is not from this group.
She is just a wannabe who is tolerated by the officers there.

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CaptainJack69 | 14 May 2017 - 22:48:33

Why don't they set themselves up a decent web-page?  Half their work would be done if people would just download and fill in the forms in advance and prepare their photocopies properly. Give clear explanations and instructions in multiple languages and put up big clear signs at the offices with the websites address hi-lighted.

Everyone is online these days and things would go much more smoothly at the immigration offices if people just arrived prepared.

I do applaud the work these volunteers do, but for my part when I used to go to immigration (very rare these days, yay online 90 day reporting!) I would have my papers all prepared and just needed a queue ticket, but I'd still have to wait to sit down and let one of these guys check me before they'd give me one, so it would actually make my visit more complicated.

The mere fact that these guys are so essential to the smooth running of Phuket immigration offices is a terrible indictment of the service the actual employees of those offices are able to provide.  I wonder what it is that the Thai's are doing so wrong, but then I remember what it was like before 2004 and it all makes sense.  Things haven't changed, there's just more customers now.

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Kurt | 14 May 2017 - 17:05:27

All Immigration Volunteers are great people.
I dare to say that Phuket thai Immigration officers hardly could do their job properly without the foreign Immigration volunteers.
I take my hat off for the foreign Immigration office volunteers.
Without them Phuket Immigration would be 50% a lame duck.

Indeed, the volunteers are a life line in the chaos setting of that Phuket town office.
The way the thai staff show, advertise their chaos office setting is thai funny.

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Foot | 14 May 2017 - 12:24:52

There is a European woman in the Patong office who is aoslutely terrific!

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