Thai women caught working in the sex trade by Taiwan authorities are seen at the National Immigration Agency. Taipei is warning that the visa-free abuse by prostitutes puts visa-free travel by all Thais at risk. According to Taiwan police, the women are involved in a sex-trafficking racket by unidentified criminals. (Photo by Taiwan Central News Agency)
Taiwan is considering driving down visa-free entries for Thais from six times to twice a year after the number of Thai women discovered working in the sex trade in the territory jumped during the visa waiver programme’s introduction two years ago.
According to the Taiwan News website, Minister Without Portfolio Chang Jing-sen convened a cross-departmental meeting on Aug 31 to review visa policy with regard to Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei.
The report said that the number of the arrivals from the three countries to Taiwan jumped by 410,000 over the past two years and there were more cases of sex work reported involving those nationals.
Taiwan media reported in April a Thai national who had visited Taiwan multiple times to provide sex services in the country had tested positive for HIV, possibly infecting hundreds of clients, according to local police.
To address the matter, Mr Chang said the government is considering reducing the number of visa-free visits for individuals from those nations.
The stiffened measures are likely to be enforced on Aug 1 next year if given the nod from by parliament, according to Radio Taiwan International.
Citing immigration authority figures, the website said 309 Thai women were found to have provided sex services in Taiwan last year, a big jump from 18 the year before. Only three Thai women committed such an offence there in 2015.
In June, Taiwan decided to extend the trial period for the visa-free privileges from Aug 1 this year to July 31 next year, but reduced each stay to a maximum of 14 days, as opposed to 30 days when the programme started in 2016.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said “Taiwan has the right to grant the visa or impose the number of days for it”, while a source at the Thai labour ministry said officers are keeping track of the reports.
The source said Taiwanese authorities are in the process of considering reducing the number of visa-free entries as part of measures to tackle an upturn in prostitution offences committed by travellers from Asean countries.
The proposal may have been raised by the Taiwanese foreign ministry but it has not yet been officially announced, the source said, adding there is still no information when the measure will be forwarded to the parliament for consideration.
Meanwhile, Chotika Chotsirimethakorn, a sales executive at Mira Travel Agency, said she did not think the visa policy change will have a significant impact on the number of Thais travelling to Taiwan.
“According to the news, the visa-free entry for Thais will not be completely abolished, and there are very few genuine tourists who would wish to visit Taiwan more than two times a year anyway,” she said.
However, if Taiwan was to completely stop offering visa-free entry to Thai passport holders, she said the impact could be huge as Taiwan is now the fourth most visited destinations in Asia by Thai tourists, after Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.
“The number of Thais travelling to Taiwan could drop by 50% if Taiwan follows through with its plan to end the programme,” she said.
A well-informed Thai source, who has been living in Taiwan for more than a decade, told the Bangkok Post that in addition to the problem of prostitution, she has seen many Thai workers in the country fall into illegal drug habits, which also spread to local communities.
This is one of the reasons that, presently, foreign workers in Taiwan are very closely monitored by the state, according to the source.
The decision to alter the terms of entry for Asean nationals may also have been politically motivated, the source said.
Last Tuesday, Thailand announced a new policy stipulating that Taiwanese people who wish to visit Thailand can only apply for visas via a single agency authorised by the Thai government which charges about 500 baht more than the present channels for granting entry.
Many Taiwanese people were upset with this, the source said.
This move also drove the Taiwanese opposition party to attack the one-sided nature of the current travel arrangements between the two countries.
Although Thailand officials quickly moved to scrap the policy the following day, saying the visa system would remain unchanged, it may have prompted the Taiwan government to rethink visa-free entry for Thais, the source said.