BICESTER, United Kingdom — A doctor in Britain on Wednesday night urged the government to immediately repatriate stranded Thai citizens, especially those who have serious medical and financial issues.
In a video call interview, Ekaphum Chamnanrabiabkij, a practicing family doctor in Bicester, said the 3,000-plus Thais stranded in the U.K. include dozens who need to return to Thailand for cancer doctor appointments, mental health prescriptions, family members’ funerals, and other urgent needs.
“It’s embarrassing if the whole world knows about this,” Ekaphum said. “How can we be so proud that our country has zero cases of COVID when we leave our brothers and sisters in a foreign country? From a humanitarian standpoint it’s completely wrong.”
Ekaphum, 35, has become the unintended spokesman speaking out on behalf of Thais marooned in Britain, who have all reached out to him for help in finding a way to return home. At least 40,000 people have died of the coronavirus in Britain, and more than 280,000 infected, media reports say.
The Thai government shut its doors to all travelers from overseas in late March, including its own citizens – a move that potentially violates the Constitution.
Although the government said Thais with relevant documents can return, many complained that the necessary papers, including a medical certificate, are near impossible to acquire.
For the past nine days, Ekaphum said he’s been comforting dozens of Thais via Line group video calls, and at the same time writing his pleas to the government online.
Thais unable to return home from the U.K. include a woman who missed her breast cancer treatment for five months, Ekaphum said.
A woman with depression and suicidal urges has also been off her mental health medication due to her inability to return to Thailand; her flight wasn’t approved until Wednesday.
Other patients still waiting to fly back have diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and so on.
While some do not have doctor appointments back home, their reasons to go back are also crucial to them. One is a mother with two children who wants to return to Thailand in fear of domestic abuse from her husband. Another person missed their father’s funeral in May. Several more have relatives on their deathbed.
Since Thailand closed its borders in March, only 1,051 Thais were allowed to return by air, according to Taweesin Visanuyothin, spokesman of the government’s pandemic center on Thursday.
Two flights were allowed per month starting in May, with 250 to 300 people on board. Most of the flights were cancelled with little notice. In July, 600 more Thais are expected to return from the U.K. by air.
“There are so many Thais in the U.K., so 1,600 people is a very, very small amount,” Ekaphum said.
There are at least 3,400 in the queue to return to Thailand. Ekaphum believes at least 4,000 Thais are waiting to return as some people haven’t registered at the embassy. He said Thai embassies in the U.K. are allowing people to go home only by the registration queue.
“Who deserves the seat on the plane to go back more, a suicidal patient or a fit 24-year-old student?” Ekaphum said. “I don’t think it’s fair to just queue up people and call them up in order. We’re not robots.”
“People are shaking, crying and asking me to help them.”
Some Thais bought tickets in advance hoping that borders would reopen. One family spent 1,000 pounds per ticket on four tickets for mid-August, and they are out 240,000 for a flight that will most likely be cancelled and will take six months to refund, the doctor said.
Ekaphum also said it was impossible for the Thais stranded there to afford U.K. healthcare on a tourist visa for any type of doctor’s appointment, not to mention COVID-19. Most will not be able to afford the full cost of private medication.
“If you don’t have a life-threatening condition, you won’t get an appointment on the same day,” Ekaphum said. “You’ll have to wait for two to three weeks at least.”
For example, to get a 10 minute mental health appointment, it could take several weeks and 100 pounds, or almost 4,000 baht. A low dosage of pills would cost at least another 100 pounds.
If someone does catch COVID-19, one-night stay at a hospital will cost 800 pounds, or about 31,000 baht, just for a bed, excluding medical, nursing, and medication costs.
Many Thais are also running out of money, since they came to the U.K. in February or March expecting a short stay. Some had to share rooms together.
“It’s unfair for the patient to have to pay. They’re not the people who want to carry on staying here,” Ekaphum said. “It would be different if the Thai government pays for people’s living and medical costs, but they’re leaving all the responsibility on the people here.”
In March, a Thai studying in Ireland sued the government for breaching Article 39 of the 2017 Constitution, which stated that “Banishing Thai nationals out of the kingdom or preventing Thai nationals from entering the kingdom cannot be done.”
The case is ongoing.