Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Banged up in Bangkok after job agency ‘bends visa rules’

Irish couple spent three weeks in Samut Prakan Prison over accusations of visa fraud

Marie Starr and James O'Neill with pilgrims at a Buddhist temple in northern Burma

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 00:00


Ciara Kenny

Locked in an overcrowded Bangkok jail was not how Marie Starr and James O’Neill envisaged spending their second Christmas away from home. Instead of a much-anticipated reunion with family and friends in Cork and Tipperary after 15 months teaching in Asia, the couple got no farther than passport control at the Thai capital’s main airport. There, they were arrested and fast-tracked to Samut Prakan Prison, falsely accused of visa fraud.

The couple were nine months into a year-long contract teaching literature to secondary students in Rangoon, in Burma (officially, Yangon, in Myanmar). They hadn’t been back since October 2012.

They were about to board their flight to London in December 2013, after checking in at Suvarnabhumi Airport when they were taken aside by a security guard and told there was a problem with their passports. Hours later, still unsure what they had done wrong, they were arrested for possessing false visa stamps.

“We couldn’t really believe it. We were in shock,” O’Neill says.

After completing a month-long teaching-certificate course in Bangkok in 2012, the couple had been put in touch with Teach-To-Travel, an agency based in the city of Lopburi, which had arranged a job for them in a nearby school, with accommodation and visas for 70 days.

When the visas needed to be extended to cover their remaining five weeks in Thailand, before they were to move on to Burma, Santipot Nakduang, who ran the agency, asked Starr and O’Neill to send him their passports, so he could update them at the local immigration office. They were returned with the false stamps.

“In retrospect it seems like a very naive thing to do, but it is quite common practice in Thailand,” O’Neill says. “We couldn’t tell the difference. The immigration office said the stamp was an exact replica, but the number was wrong.”

They spent six hours at the immigration office after their arrest, trying to contact anyone who could help. It was the middle of the night in Ireland, and both the Irish Consulate in Bangkok and the Embassy in Kuala Lumpur were closed for the weekend. “All you can think of is, Who can help me when I’m this far away from home?” Starr says.

That night they were locked up together at the airport police station. The following day they were separated into male and female cells, with bars on the doors, a squat toilet, and no bed or privacy. But they could still see each other through the bars, and were confident the ordeal would end soon after reassurance from a local official that they’d be free to go after paying a fine.

The next morning they were fingerprinted, put in the back of a jeep and driven to an open courtroom nearby.

“It was a really intimidating place,” O’Neill says. “There was no judge, just a booth at the top of the room with a woman inside with a microphone, who calls out names and is in contact by phone to a judge upstairs somewhere. You don’t get to plead your case.”

After hours of waiting, a representative of their lawyer, arranged by the Consulate, gave them the news they had feared: bail had been denied. They were escorted to a caged school bus for the two-hour journey to Samut Prakan Prison.

“When you get there they take all your belongings. You lose everything,” Starr says. She was given a toothbrush and a rough bar of soap, but there were no mats to sleep on, and blankets were shared. It was overcrowded and dirty, and at night the five-metre-by-eight-metre cell in which O’Neill slept was shared by 77 other men.

The days were long. Because they were foreigners they weren’t sent out for factory work with the other prisoners, so they spent most of the day in the yard with nothing to do.

“You think too much,” says Starr. “Thankfully I had two books I was allowed to keep, which stopped me from losing my mind. They were my prized possessions. I kept a diary to stave off the boredom.”

Cut off from the rest of the world as well as each other, they had no way of knowing what progress was being made with their case. It was a week before two representatives from the Irish Consulate visited them, bringing simple supplie

After three days apart, Starr and O’Neill were each relieved to see the other was okay when they were able to talk from adjacent rooms on Christmas Day, when their lawyer came to visit. He brought word, too, from their families, who were working through the night to try to free them.

The couple were disappointed with their lawyer’s approach to their case, however. “He said he would try to get us one year in prison instead of three,” O’Neill says – this despite the couple’s innocence.

Starr’s family were put in touch with an Irish-American priest in Bangkok, Fr Joe Maier, who spread word in the Irish community of the couple’s predicament. A new lawyer quickly discovered that Santipot Nakduang had been arrested and charged in connection with other cases of visa fraud.

This information, together with evidence of emails between the agent and O’Neill, was enough to secure their release after 21 days in custody.

Santipot admitted to The Irish Times to falsifying their visas but said his “actions were not malicious or to gain personal profit”.

“The Thai visa process is an overcomplicated process and sometimes agencies like mine bend the rules to try to simplify matters and speed things up,” he said in an email.

“I have now had to pay substantial fines and have learned my lesson and now completely refrain from these practices.”

Teach-To-Travel ceased trading in August last year

Reuniting and being homeward bound was an overwhelming relief for Starr and O’Neill, but the ordeal was not behind them yet, as they faced a five-day wait for the Irish Embassy to issue the emergency travel documents they needed to fly home.

To be officially deported, they had to give themselves over to the police again to be brought to their departure gate for the 35-hour trip back to Dublin, via Sri Lanka. It was not until they landed back in Ireland that they finally felt free

Six months later they say they will never forget how alone they felt during their ordeal. Although the Irish Consulate provided help (“extensive assistance” in the Consulate’s words), it was the couple’s families’ efforts that ultimately secured their release.

The support of the Irish community in Bangkok was invaluable, too. People they had never met before drove to the prison, two hours outside the city, to show that someone cared.

“Their visits were an absolute highlight,” Starr says. “To be taken out of the compound just to talk to them was amazing, but they were also able to bring us messages from our families. It was really touching.”

The pair decided to share their story to raise awareness among other young Irish people about the consequences of falling victim to scams while travelling or living abroad.

“This could have happened to anyone,” O’Neill says. “Thailand is known as a country where scams are common. We knew that before we went there, yet we still fell victim to it. You presume if you get in trouble abroad the Embassy will help you, but life is not a Hollywood film. Embassies can’t get you out of prison.”

Both are determined to put the experience behind them, and after a fruitless job search during their four months at home in Ireland they flew back to Burma to resume teaching in Rangoon in May.

“Returning to Myanmar was the best decision we could have made. It would have been disappointing to end our time in Asia after such a negative experience. We couldn’t let that define us,” O’Neill says.

This article appears in Weekend Review today. For more information about what to do if you end up in trouble with the law abroad, read this article by the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas published earlier this week