You might remember being greeted by one of the friendly, white-shirted foreigners that man the desk at the entrance to immigration office – asking you what you need to get done that day, help you organise your paperwork and fill out the necessary forms.
What you may not have realised, is that despite appearances, these patient and helpful souls are not paid employees of the Immigration Department, but community-minded volunteers who selflessly donate their time and effort to making our time in Thailand that little bit easier.
Day-in, day-out this tireless team of volunteers help people from every corner of the globe deal with the often complicated and opaque bureaucracy of Thailand’s Department of Immigration.
But hasn’t always been so. The group traces its roots back to 2004 and the devastating tsunami that hit Phuket – wreaking havoc, death and injury on thousands of Thais, tourists and expats who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the wake of the tsunami the need for translators soared, as foreigners caught in the maelstrom struggled to find lost loved ones, seek medical aid, communicate with authorities and begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
This urgent demand was quickly filled by volunteers, many of them long-term residents of Phuket, who found their language skills could provide essential help for victims.
The post-tsunami recovery effort forged a deep sense of community spirit for those involved and it was during this time the seeds were sown for what would become two of Phuket’s most dedicated foreign volunteer groups.
“That [post-tsunami translation volunteering] was so successful that the government decided they wanted to create something like this on a permanent basis,” says Gerar Teuben, spokesman for the Phuket Immigration Volunteers.
“So they created the Tourist Police Volunteers. Then the Immigration Department saw the work they were doing and said they wanted to do something similar. So we started the Immigration Volunteers,” he adds.
Initially organised and overseen by the Phuket Tourist Police, the Phuket Immigration Volunteers quickly grew and evolved – eventually separating from the Tourist Police and coming under the command of the Phuket Immigration Chief.
It is also a uniquely Phuketian phenomenon: despite Thailand’s huge tourism industry and vibrant expat community, nowhere else in the country is there a volunteer group like it.
For Gerar, a nine-year veteran of the group, being an immigration volunteer provides immense satisfaction – knowing that he is giving something back to the place he has made his home and assisting countless others who want to visit or live here.
“I have lived in Phuket for 28 years and about nine years ago a friend asked me if I wanted to be an immigration volunteer. I had also been asked to join the Tourist Police, but that wasn’t really for me. I don’t like the bars – it’s a very difficult job. So when I looked at immigration, I saw that you could really help people with their problems,” he says.
While it may be slightly calmer than working a Tourist Police volunteer, Gerar says he still often sees people in very difficult circumstances.
“You see people coming in very desperate and almost crying, but you can help them and they come away smiling and happy,” says Gerar.
Gerar is one of a close-knit team of 12 (together they speak 14 languages) who each volunteer for two days a week to ensure there is always someone on hand to help visitors to the immigration office.
With this heavy workload, Gerar says the group is always looking to recruit new members.
Along with fellow spokesman Olaf Taenzer, Gerar is putting out a call to anybody who might be interested in volunteering to get in touch.
They are particularly hoping to recruit Russian and Chinese speakers, which are in hot demand due to the rise in visitor numbers from these countries in recent years.
Gerar says the that the group is not only about the work – it’s also underscored by strong friendships between members. The multi-national group often gets together for social events and recently took part in a team-building trip to Khao Lak.
“It’s very much a friendship group too,” says Gerar. “We have Dutch, German, English, Australian, French and other members, from about eight countries in all – but our working language is English,” he adds.
Gerar says there are a few essential traits you need to be an immigration volunteer.
“You have to be willing to help other people.
You have to be able to tolerate a level of stress because people aren’t always happy with the answers they get from immigration. You have to be service minded, if you can’t do that, it’s not the job for you,” he says.
“Normally, of the people we help, 80% are happy, 15% are okay, and maybe 5% are unhappy. But we have full backup from the officers to help us. We have a very good relationship with the immigration officers,” adds Gerar.
So after nine years at the coal face, what advice does Gerar have for people when dealing with Thai Immigration?
“Check your passport stamp when you leave airport immigration counter – a mistake can create a lot of problems if not noticed or fixed accordingly. Also, check the dates of your stamps and don’t overstay – it is a criminal offence and you could be blacklisted,” he says.
Most importantly, says Gerar, “Dress appropriately and remember to keep a big smile, if you have problems, keep smiling. If you get angry, you get nothing. Try to solve your problems with a big smile – it really helps.”
Surely sound advice for life in general here in the Land of Smiles.
For more information or enquiries about becoming a Phuket Immigration Volunteer visit: http://piv-phuket.com, email PIV.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 090-1707360 (English) or 090-8622785 (German).