At the Frontlines of the Thai Repatriation Mission: Stranded in the Balkans during COVID-19
Thai people don’t leave each other behind. Believe it or not, this motto may have been the driving force which has kept Thai civil servants motivated to repatriate Thais stranded abroad throughout the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Coming to work and just finishing what you have to do for the day is not the right approach when you work in civil service,” says Mr. Kittivudh Pinyowit, a Thai diplomat stationed at the Thai Embassy in Budapest. “Your goal at the end of the day is to bring home the people who have reached out to you as their last hope.”
A Thai man was traveling alone through Montenegro in March 2020 when the country abruptly entered into one of the toughest lockdowns in Europe. According to the IMF, Montenegro preemptively chose to lockdown the country by closing its borders, schools, and non-essential businesses on March 13th 2020 despite having no confirmed cases in the country. Its citizens were not allowed to travel to a number of European countries while ships were also barred from entering seaports.
The Balkan Region borders the Mediterranean Sea and offers a beautiful destination for those who like Romanesque stone bridges and aquamarine lake views which have famously been featured in spy films like Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. As a result of lockdown restrictions, all flights out of Montenegro and any connecting flights from the neighboring countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina were completely cancelled that day. The Thai man had little time left at his accommodation as well as depleting resources in the strict conditions of the lockdown that left him forlorn. With little options left to return home, the man reached out to the Thai Embassy in Budapest where Mr. Kittivudh received his call for help on March 14th 2020. There is no Thai Embassy in Montenegro for Thais and instead the Balkan region was placed in the care of the representation in Budapest. Little did the man know that this would only be the beginning of a one-month long journey back to Thailand that would involve a transit between five countries.
“It was a challenging situation,” says Mr. Kittivudh. “There were also no other viable forms of public transport which the man could have used to leave his location.” The Embassy in Budapest had already begun the repatriation process for Thais who wished to return home from Hungary at the time, but Montenegro was a location far out of reach. After seeking out all possible options for the man, the Embassy staff decided that the most viable solution was to rent a taxi to drive the man from his location to the border where he could enter Bosnia and Herzegovina on foot.
Thailand at the time began implementing stronger travel restrictions which meant the man must now provide a health certificate issued by a doctor to be qualified for boarding his aircraft back home. While waiting for his taxi ride to be arranged, the man attempted to acquire the health certificate in Montenegro. Under the new public health restrictions, he had to self-quarantine for at least 28 days before local practitioners would allow him to get checked. This option therefore became unfeasible. Embassy staff later advised him that it would be more convenient to organize an appointment with a doctor in Budapest.
The taxi would take the man across Montenegro to the Bosnian border where local immigration officers had already received a request from the Thai Embassy to let him through under exceptional circumstances. The Bosnian Ministry of Foreign Affairs kindly accepted the case and was very helpful towards coordinating their authorities according to Mr. Kittivudh. After traveling through Bosnia and Herzegovina, the man rented another taxi to take him across the entire length of Croatia in order to enter Hungary. At the border, Thai Embassy staff had already sent a car to take him to Budapest. His journey from Podgorica to Budapest encompassed a stretch of over 1,000 kilometers.
“When he arrived here in Budapest, Thailand had already begun turning away commercial flights. Our job at this point was to send him to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where he could board a KLM flight home with the documents that had a time limit on their validity,” says Mr. Kittivudh. The health certificate was to be no more than three days old before the passenger would board the plane according to the new measures that were changing by the day. The volatility of the circumstances rendered a number of the documents the man successfully acquired in early April invalid due to the postponing of travel plans.
“I personally felt very worried about this man’s case. For that entire month I woke up in the morning and the only thing I could think about was how the man was doing wherever he was on the leg of his journey,” says Mr. Kittivudh. When asked why he was so concerned, he says “I picked up his distress call myself- which at that point I was the man’s last hope. He would have no salary, nowhere to go, he’d be completely stranded in Montenegro if we do not succeed”.
After a few botched attempts to send the man home, all the documents were finally approved in line with the travel plans organized by the Thai Embassy. The travel route would involve numerous transits before making a final stop in The Netherlands where a seat on a repatriation flight was secured for the man. He first took a ride from Budapest to Vienna where he boarded a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. From Frankfurt, he finally took a flight to Schiphol Airport Amsterdam and boarded his KLM flight to Thailand on April 19th 2020. The man’s journey from the starting point in Montenegro to Amsterdam took the man over 4 weeks and covered a span of 2,170 kilometers.
Through the hard work of Thai Embassy staff as well as cooperation from local authorities in every respective country, all personnel involved contributed their efforts in pursuit of one common goal-to bring a fellow Thai back home. Such devotion is a hallmark of how civil servants would go above and beyond their mandates to fulfil their duty.
Before I ended the call with Mr. Kittivudh, I asked if there were any limits to the solutions the Embassy could take to assist this man on his journey. He said “I find that this was feat beyond the best we could have done for him.”