Thursday, 12 March 2009

Embassy left Brit to rot in prison

Travellers to Thailand may return home nursing the pain of sunburn, excessive drinking, jet-lag, less in the bank, a local scam or perhaps an illness picked up from the 12 hour plane journey. We’ve all been there.

Spare a thought or three then for Simon Burrowes, a 42 year old Brit, who’s working holiday to Thailand has cost him his rented flat in London, 21 days in Thai prison, all of the money he possess and a charge of “insulting immigration officers” which may take up 12 months to process.

Burrowes was checking at immigration checking-in before his flight home when officials, suspicious of his passport, held and questioned him for an hour before contacting the British embassy in Bangkok for authentication of his passport and travelling documents.

To his horror, Burrowes was told by embassy staff that his passport could not be located on the system and, as it was a Friday the embassy was closing early and would look into the matter after the weekend. Unable to pay the £2,000 bail, Burrowes then spent the weekend in prison.

The following Monday his passport has confirmed as legitimate by the British embassy. Issued in Australia, it seems the passport had eluded officials who were unable to find a record of it – quite a shocking and damning fact in this day and age. Even once he was confirmed as a legal British citizen, Burrowes was not free to leave as he learnt, for the first time, that he was to remain be charged “insulting immigration officers”. As he could not yet afford bail, he remained in prison.

His charge related to a verbal between Burrowes and Thai immigration officials when he was initially held at the airport. Burrowes claims officially said his flight would not leave without their say-so, yet it did. He alleges that he asked them to stop treating him like a fucking idiot, the officials claim he called them fucking idiots and hence the charges were brought.

His case not due in court until April and with only one sitting a month Burrowes is likely to remain in limbo for anything up to year. One physical place he will not remain is jail as the bail money was finally met after the Brit had languished in prison for 21 days.

All in all a pretty disgraceful chain of events.

Thai-based journalist Andrew Drummond broke the story in a number of national newspapers and his blog.

Interestingly Drummond has a follow-up post which raises questions about the actions of embassy officials who did not deem Burrowes’ case worthy of  the “systems in place [which] provide consular assistance in emergency cases 24 hours a day 7 days a week”.

It is quite shocking that the embassy could leave one of its citizens hanging so precariously whilst officials go about adding an extra few hours to their weekends. Perhaps worse is the embassy’s claim, in an email to Drummond, that “the issue was resolved within three working days”.

Even now, when it is clear to all and sundry that this poor man suffered at the hands of his embassy, the officials release such pre-prepared and on message responses which are insensitive to the situation. The embassy needs to issue a response and acknowledge the mistakes made, rather than trying to sweep this under the carpet.

Then there is the issue of race, Burrowes is a black male of Guyanese background, here’s a snippet from Drummond’s blog...

“And then Simon is black. I can’t help feel that he is right when he says: ‘In Thailand there is no perception of a black Englishman’.

So when the British Embassy could not immediately find his passport record and told Thai police, it does not take much imagination to know how Simon Burrowes would be treated. (’Like a West African drugs dealer’) When he was beaten with a leather strap outside the court there were witnesses. But those witnesses would be foolish probably to take the matter further.  In any case he believes he was hit because the officer was ‘in the rhythm’ so to speak. He is big but he was handcuffed and could hardly defend himself.

When I spoke to him here was little malice about it in his voice. He was just gobsmacked and thought the officer in question was just showing off.

When the story from the black people’s London newspaper ‘Voice’ was picked up by the local, singularly pro-active, Phuketwan website, Thai Immigration police immediately closed ranks. Simon was ‘abusive and aggressive’.  He was ‘not the sort of tourist we want’.  ‘He posed naked for his passport picture’. What sort of person would do that?’.

All baloney of course.  Simon laughed about his passport: “Yes. To somebody else I probably look like a black thug,” he told me.  Of course he was not naked in his passport picture. If he was the picture would have been in Thai Rath a long time ago.  It was a head and shoulders picture. His collar bone was exposed!

And how many of us are unhappy with our passport photos?

So there you have it. Face saving all round. No need to dwell on the criticism of the British Embassy. But it could have been more muted if they had handled it differently. But time and time again they seem to score own goals when dealing with the media.  And this case was no exception.

The responses of the embassy, with its cover-up and lack of 24/7 emergency support for Burrowes, and the swift, fierce actions of the Thai police suggest that the embassy may have told Thai authorities that Burrowes was travelling on false papers.

This has been denied by authorities, however in the meantime Simon Burrowes remains in Thailand awaiting further developments. We can only home that common sense prevails and he is allowed to return home.

As the father of a Anglo-Thai child whose first passport will not be issued from London, this example worries me for the future. The embassy should be held to account but it has already failed to go public and acknowledge the (multiple) mistakes made. Changes must be made internally. A good start would be working all day on Fridays, they must owe a few by now.

3 comments:

Mike said...

Jon an interesting and sad tale.

On the issue of being black, I think any mistreatment is more likely to come from Thailand since the average Thai has been taught that black people are demons!

The Embassy staff live on another planet from us. That said the FCO is a 24/7 outfit albeit London based.

Personally I am registered with them, so they could never claim they did not know me. I would recommend all Brits visiting and living here do the same.

Also this case demonstrates the importance to not loose your cool here whatever the circumstances.

Lets hope he gets released quickly.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if he had behaved with some pleasant British civility he would have been treated a little better! A smile goes a long way in Thailand. Getting aggressive and playing the 'I'm British, treat me with respect!' card doesn't go very far in the Land Of Smles. I've read a few interviews this guy has given and he's not a pleasant man so let's not shed too many tears. He's not in prison because he's black, he's in prison because he was rude and aggressive!

Jon said...

Thanks Mike, I'll have to look into the FCO.

Anon, the main point is that this British citizen was let down inexcusably but his embassy. The fact that they did not deem his situation worthy of attention is the reason he has ended up where he is today.

Yes, in Thailand, as much as anywhere, losing one's temper does not help the cause but I challenge anyone to go through a similar situation with Jai Yen and "British civility".

The fact that he is black did, undoubtedly, make Thai authorities more suspicious of him when the UK embassy was unable to confirm his passport. It is not the reason is was jailed but it played a significant part once the UK authorities had left him stranded.

As for your claim that he is "not a pleasant man" - that is (a) your opinion and (b) irrelevant to the issue as he was guilty of nothing, initially at least.