Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the COVID-19 at a local market in Daegu, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap via AP)

BANGKOK — Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan said the government has no legal power to order thousands of migrant workers returning from South Korea into a quarantine.

Officials said up to 5,000 undocumented Thai workers, known in internet slang as “Little Ghosts,” have signed up for evacuation following a worsening outbreak of the coronavirus in Korea. Gen. Prawit said the returnees will be “asked” to stay home and monitor their health, though many fear the measure may not be stringent enough.

Prawit’s remark came just before immigration police said two workers returning from Korea are being monitored for possible infection.

“They have to stay in their home, because their origin country [South Korea] didn’t shut down cities like in Wuhan,” Prawit said. “We have no laws that can control these people.”


When a reporter said how the government can ensur e that the returnees would comply with the self-quarantine measure, Prawit said they can only hope so.

“We have to tell them to do it,” the general said.

Government officials hand out free face masks in Bangkok on March 3, 2020.

About 100,000 Thais are believed to be working in South Korea, but only 12,000 of them entered the country legally, labor officials said in September 2019. Most of the rest were “Little Ghosts,” undocumented workers in Korean farms and factories, where wages were higher than average pay in Thailand.

The recent outbreak of the coronavirus in South Korea is forcing some of these “ghosts” to return home. The Korean government has agreed to let the illegal workers return home without any penalty if they register before June 30, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Cherdkiat Atthakor said on Monday.

Cherdkiat said about 5,000 Thais have signed up for the amnesty program, including 136 from the city of Daegu, the epicenter of the outbreak in Korea. He said the ministry will assist any of the workers who cannot afford a ticket back home.

It takes about three to 15 days for the Korean authorities to process travel documents for the workers and allow them to leave, Cherdkiat said.

Immigration checkpoint at Suvarnabhumi Airport on March 2, 2020.

But the prospect of nearly 5,000 Thais returning from a high-risk country is putting the social media on its edge. Many netizens took to the hashtag #LittleGhosts to voice their concern that their return would put the public’s safety at risk.


Immigration police said some of the workers had already arrived in Thailand in recent days, adding that strict safety measures have been enacted at two of Bangkok’s major airports to detect any possible infection among the returnees.

Two of the workers have been pulled aside and sent to a hospital today after they show symptoms associated with the coronavirus, immigration police spokesman Choenron Rimpadee said.

He said Thai workers returning from Korea are seated separately from other passengers, and health officials will immediately run a check through them once they land.