Unlike the majority of the world, Latin America’s experience with the Coronavirus was relatively delayed. By the time the pandemic reached Argentina in mid-March 2020, the Argentine government was ready to impose the best practices drawn from the spontaneous reactions of other countries throughout Europe and Asia that bore the brunt of the outbreak. Latin America therefore had the privilege of acquiring extra time to study the lessons learnt from the pandemic to generate the most informed decisions concerning how their region should follow suit. This outlook was maintained by Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and a number of other neighboring countries in the region that was ready to impose policies on social isolation as a preliminary measure. As the pandemic closed in, Thai Embassies in the region also began preparing for a potential large scale repatriation operation to send Thai citizens home.
As the new Consul of the Royal Thai Embassy in Buenos Aires, my first job was to look over our reports about Thais living in Argentina to bring myself up to speed about my new position. We have less than 50 people living here that are mostly naturalized Argentine citizens who no longer have a need to return to Thailand,” says Ms. Viriya Pornsuriya. “Therefore when the pandemic finally arrived in Latin America, we did not expect a large scale evacuation operation to help Thais return home.”
Mr. Issara Pathamasukhon whose wife works at the Embassy in Santiago describes Chile’s “dynamic lockdown” as a flexible model that enables a constant shift of measures depending on the varying rate of transmissions. “In the worst phase of the crisis known as phase 1, I had to use an online system to request special permission to leave the house twice a week for a time period of 1.5 hours to do my groceries and finish any paperwork outside of my house,” says Mr. Issara. “Phase 2 is a small relaxation where you were allowed to go to work during the weekdays but you are not permitted to go outside on the weekends. Where I lived in Santiago we had this switch between phase 1 and 2 between March until late August 2020.” Throughout the lockdown period Mr. Issara recounts local police patrolling the streets to reprimand people who decide to leave the house without valid permits.
“We have a few hundred Thais living in Chile in all categories whether it be masseuses, waiters, shop owners, or Thai spouses. Fortunately for us, the local organizations in Chile were very sympathetic towards our need to send home Thai citizens when the pandemic reached Latin America,” says Mr. Issara.
Though Chile had largely put up a protective approach to their lockdown, Argentina’s version was a step up a notch. President Alberto Fernández upgraded measures of social isolation that were implemented on March 20th 2020 to a full scale lockdown by early April 2020. Riot police were stationed to prevent people from leaving their homes without permission and provincial lockdowns were enforced to limit the movement of people. As a result, the Thai Embassy in Buenos Aires were informed by alarmed parents that more than one hundred Thai high school students were stuck on an exchange trip abroad in Argentina.
The AFS Intercultural Exchange program is one of the leading providers of student exchange experiences in Thailand. AFS originated from the American Field Service after World War I and became a global program for exchange comprising over 50 nonprofit organizations that sends students abroad to promote diverse learning experiences. This year over one hundred Thai students chose Argentina as the top destination for their experience abroad. Ms. Viriya says “this is something remarkable that we did not expect, but at the same time the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was when the children who had come on exchange could no longer return home.”
Under the policy of the AFS Intercultural Exchange Program, students are sent to remote places at the country of their choice to absorb the local culture and thoroughly develop their language capabilities. This factor inadvertently worsened the circumstances for the students who were now trapped within separate provincial lockdowns. The Thai Embassy in Buenos Aires and the AFS team had already repatriated roughly half the students who were able to reach the capital before the lockdown while the remaining 50 remained stuck in their location.
“The students were all underage and didn’t speak Spanish very well. Under the strain of the pandemic their quality of life within their host families were also greatly impacted by the economic malaise that occurred as a result of the lockdown,” says Ms. Viriya.
With over 50 students stranded under exceptional circumstances, Ms.Viriya and her team had no choice but to request special permission from the Argentine government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to retrieve the students back to Buenos Aires on a case by case basis. The ultimate challenge was that every student must possess a permit with their passport details as well as the details about the driver, the car, and the borders they must pass through to reach the Thai Embassy. Due to the students being underage, the driver had to drive directly without stopping for any breaks in between for a time limit of 24 hours. “Some of our students were living with host families that were about 4 days away by car in places like Tierra del Fuego. In these cases, there must be two drivers to accommodate the child and to switch turns driving the vehicle due to legal limitations,” says Ms. Viriya.
The Thai team were tasked with tracking every vehicle that drove towards the Embassy once all permits were successfully acquired. They must check if any vehicle had stopped in between and whether the students were comfortable throughout their journey. “It was a stressful operation where we were monitoring over 50 students that were taking separate routes across a country five times larger than Thailand. If anyone stopped on the way or we couldn’t reach them due to poor telephone signals- we would become extremely worried if something may have gone wrong,” says Ms. Viriya. “I had a chart with everyone’s names and contact numbers and we were constantly checking up on their progress because we also needed to alert border officials if anyone was arriving at a check point.”
The students were slowly repatriated out of the country as they arrived in Buenos Aires and were given seats on repatriation flights out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. They were flown across the Atlantic to reach their connecting flight home which was organized by The Royal Thai Embassy in The Hague. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines continued to make flights between Bangkok and Amsterdam throughout the pandemic which made Schiphol Airport a focal point for various countries and cities across continents. Whether it was connecting flights from the United States or any other part of Europe that no longer had routes to Thailand, Thai passengers would be directed to Amsterdam. The remaining students who were still unable to reach Buenos Aires were students who chose Uruguay and Paraguay as their host country.
Paraguay and Uruguay are territories which also fall under the mandate of the Thai Embassy in Buenos Aires. The students there faced a harder lockdown measures when Paraguay introduced night time curfews that would escalate into a total lockdown of the nation by April 2020. Unfortunately for the Thai students on exchange in those areas, their repatriation would be further delayed for months after the rest of the exchange team had already arrived home due to legal restrictions.
“It took us a very long time to bring back the remaining three students until the Paraguayan government allowed them to be exempt from the COVID restrictions due to a relaxation of measures. There was only one repatriation flight left bound for Bangkok when they arrived in Buenos Aires- therefore everything had to be completed perfectly as planned,” says Ms. Viriya. Ms. Viriya accompanied the students to the airport where they were informed that their flight bound for Amsterdam had to be cancelled due to a loose knot in the aircraft. For the next two nights, the students who were still chaperoned by Ms. Viriya stayed at the airport with sleeping bags and boxes of food provided by the Embassy. “I switched turns with another colleague to sleep with the children at the airport to keep them company at all times. We encouraged them to be strong and that they will be home soon once the aircraft gets repaired.”
The Royal Thai Embassy in The Hague decided that organizing a cargo plane to repatriate the children would now be the most feasible option with the repatriation flight having departed after its time at the airport had elapsed. Once the initial flight was ready for takeoff after 2 days of repair, Ms. Viriya said goodbye to the children who boarded their flight across the first leg of their journey. In Amsterdam, the students were escorted by Embassy staff from The Hague who sent them off to their cargo plane bound for Bangkok.
Ms. Viriya recalls going home and sleeping for a day after the children were safely repatriated and sent into their mandatory 14-day quarantine. “It was a very rewarding experience and the AFS students gave me this thank you card they made which I was so touched to receive. We will still be based here in Argentina to continue our mission to protect Thais abroad to the best of our abilities.”
Ms. Viriya Pornsuriya graduated from the London School of Economics University of London before joining the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2013. Outside of the ministry, Ms. Pornsuriya also works as an English teacher.