By Mariyam Ahmad
About 5,000 Thais working in Saudi Arabia are asking for help to come home after Riyadh raised visa fees for foreign migrants, officials said Friday, as authorities prepared to repatriate 629 residents of the Deep South, one of Thailand’s poorest regions.
The Southern Border Province Administration Center (SBPAC) was negotiating with the Thai Foreign Ministry, Thai Airways and Riyadh for permission for airliners to pick up Thai workers from Medina airport in Saudi Arabia and fly them home, agency director Teeruth Supawoboonpol said.
SBPAC is the government office that oversees issues related to the predominantly Muslim population of Thailand’s troubled and impoverished southern border region.
“These people want to go home because Saudi Arabia has raised fees on expats every year,” Teeruth told BenarNews.
It was not immediately clear if the issues faced by Thai workers in the Arab kingdom were related to a $20-million gem heist in Saudi Arabia back in the 1980s that soured bilateral relations.
Thai workers currently pay about 1,800 baht (U.S. $54) each month for the privilege to work in Saudi, he said.
Teeruth said a letter presented to Thai consular officials who visited Jeddah in March included 629 signatures of Deep South residents who had expressed interest to come back home.
He said SBPAC was planning to charter airliners that would soon start flying from the Deep South to transport Muslims participating in the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Mecca.
“There are 629, mostly working in the garments sector and housemaids, who have signed up to fly back to the Deep South, using airliners that are scheduled to fly Hajj pilgrims to Medina next week,” Teeruth said.
While the government could handle the charter arrangements, the Deep South workers must pay for visas and airfare, he said.
Many residents from the insurgency-wracked Deep South eventually ended up marrying Saudi men and having children born in Saudi Arabia but without proper birth certificates, complicating their immigration status in Thailand, Teeruth said.
Among them was 56-year-old Rokaya Samoh, who told BenarNews that the higher monthly visa fees, among other issues, spurred her decision to return to Pattani province with her Saudi Arabian husband two years ago – after 40 years living in Saudi.
But, she said, she left behind their five children because they did not have Thai immigration documents.
“Previously, the fees were only a few hundred baht. But they raised the fees every year and I heard it is now almost 2,000 baht (U.S. $60) each month,” she said.
“They don’t want Yawi to stay there but we like to because the country is Halal-oriented and has some jobs,” Rokaya said, using another name for Malay Pattani or Muslim Thai.
She declined to disclose her income while she was there, but said most Thais from the Deep South were working in Saudi Arabia as housemaids.
“We kept a low-profile, but we felt free during Hajj time,” she said. “We, Yawi, concentrated there in close-knit groups. It is easy to find our compatriots, very much like our home here.”
Blue diamond affair
In June 1990, Saudi Arabia downgraded its diplomatic relations with Thailand, stopped renewing the visas of more than 250,000 Thai workers and declined to give out new ones – effectively cutting off billions of dollars of remittances – after a sensational case known in Thailand as the “blue diamond affair.”
Riyadh also barred its citizens from traveling to Thailand as tourists, but a Saudi can travel to the Buddhist-majority nation upon submitting papers proving marriage to a Thai national.
In 1989, a Thai national who worked as a gardener for a Saudi prince was accused of stealing about 100 kilos (about 45 pounds) of jewelry worth $20 million, including a rare blue diamond, from his employer’s palace.
The decades-old theft led to tales of murder, deception, kidnappings and diplomatic intrigue that ended in a Thai court. On March 31, 2014, a Thai criminal court dismissed the case against five men, including a senior police officer, charged with murdering a Saudi businessman who had gone to Bangkok to investigate the theft.
Three Saudi diplomats were shot dead in Bangkok days before the Saudi businessman vanished in 1990. Thai officials denied that the murders were related to the jewelry heist. The diamond, which has been widely described as about 50 carats and one of the largest blue diamonds in the world, is still missing.
Before the unsolved multimillion-dollar theft led to a diplomatic spat between the two nations, as many as 300,000 were working in Saudi Arabia. Today, there are only 15,000 Thai migrant workers employed in Saudi, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Deep South includes Thailand’s three southernmost provinces– Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – and parts of a fourth, Songkhla. It is one of Thailand’s most-impoverished regions, where thousands of Malay-speaking locals have sought jobs abroad, including neighboring Malaysia.
A low-level separatist insurgency, which reignited in 2004, has killed at least 7,000 people in the Deep South, leading to economic hardships among its residents, according to analysts.