The plight of Thailand’s homeless foreigners
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The plight of Thailand’s homeless foreigners

Thailand is often touted as a wonderful place to retire, and it’s easy to see why. The weather is warm all year round, the cost of living is low – indeed, much lower than in many Western countries. Inexpensive rent on beautiful homes, ease of travel, cheap and readily available food and booze, and for those so inclined, plenty of women – what’s more to want as one settles into retirement?

Thailand has a lot to offer, and from the outside looks like an absolute paradise. The reality is that once you get inside and begin living there, however, you see a darker, more difficult and troubling side to the Land of Smiles.

The Nation newspaper reported earlier this week that a rising number of foreigners are now among the homeless in Thailand, with about 200 throughout the country. This author confesses to being quite surprised by this, as the costs of living are so low that one assumes a retiree can live quite comfortably even on a fixed pension. And that they can still get by if things get lean, at least to the point of being able to afford an apartment or a room in a guesthouse.

But The Nation and The Bangkok Post reported that many of these foreigners see financial ruin after intertwining their lives and money matters with Thai wives and girlfriends. They buy property, such as condos and houses, in the women’s names, meaning that should they split up, the men have little recourse for holding on to the homes that they purchased.

“Thailand’s laws covering foreigners are very outdated and should be revised to deal with the changed circumstances,” the Bangkok Post quoted Buaphan Promphakping, an associate professor of social studies at Khon Kaen University, as saying.

Natee Saravari, secretary-general of the Issarachon Foundation, which now assists both Thai and foreign homeless people, described a sad scene. “In Pattaya we see them sorting through the trash in front of McDonald’s for something to eat, and hanging out in front of restaurants asking customers for money,” he said, according to the newspaper.

This image is so at odds with the lifestyle and security retirement in Thailand seems to promise, and it’s jarring to consider what little options there are for men in this situation.

The issue of homelessness gained attention in Pattaya last year, when the government began to crack down on growing numbers of both local and foreign homeless there. The response there, as it has been in other areas, is to deport foreign homeless back to their home countries.

CityNews Chiang Mai reported that in addition to those who have been swindled by a lover, homeless foreigners are sometimes those who overstayed a visa because they wanted to stay in Thailand, and are now in the country illegally, often with an expired passport. This combined set of circumstances makes it difficult for them to get around Thailand, let alone return to their home countries.

Though the plight of homeless foreigners is unfortunate, one wonders why they didn’t take steps to mitigate these circumstances in the first place. It is possible for foreigners to buy condos  themselves in Thailand, or lease land long-term, which would allow them to avoid relying on a wife or girlfriend for the proper documentation. And while visa applications and runs can be a hassle, it’s far less of a hassle than to let both visa and passport expire, leaving them with few options in their home and adopted countries.

The Issarachon Foundation is calling upon the Thai government to revise how it deals with homeless foreigners. The current response is generally to deport them, though some say this is the best option. In a discussion on the ThaiVisa forum (which is at times of dubious quality but always contains debate about ex-pat concerns), many expressed the opinion that these people are better off being sent home.

“Honestly, for people from Western countries, getting sent back to their home country is probably the best thing that can happen in that situation. There there are social welfare services available, and many of them would have a chance to get a job and get back on their feet … If Thailand isn’t going to help out [ethnic groups like the] Rohingya, Hmong etc. why would they be bothered to help out broke westerners?”

Another major issue is the fact that some of these homeless are alcoholics and may be mentally unstable, making it less likely that they will seek viable long-term solutions to their plight. This creates a complex situation in which it is not just lack of funds or up-to-date travel documents that are a problem, but serious health issues getting in the way of their decision-making and well-being.