Forms of inconvenience

The government's decision to eventually scrap the TM.6 immigration form for Thais travelling abroad at some stage in the future is the right step to improve the immigration service at airports, but it is far from enough.

Complaints over long waits at immigration counters at Don Mueang airport made front-page news headlines from Saturday, prompting a scramble by the authorities to look into the problem which also plagues Suvarnabhumi airport. In double-quick time, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the immigration agency and other bodies to team up and roll out a plan to tackle the problem.

They pointed the finger at the problematic TM.6 form that all travellers are required to complete before leaving or entering the country. The agencies involved came up with a solution where the white cards with blue text will be redesigned, and will be mandatory only for foreigners. (Under the original plan, the foreigner-only forms were to be available from Oct 1. But since an amendment to the law to exclude Thai travellers from filling in the forms will not be finished by then, this means Thais too will have to keep using them for an as yet undetermined period.)

Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda conceded there had been a suggestion that the TM.6 forms are no longer really necessary for any travellers, be they Thais or foreigners, and should be entirely scrapped given advances in immigration-related computer technology. Business operators and others in the private sector have also given the forms the thumbs-down, he said.

However, the minister said the forms will be kept as requested by the Tourism and Sports Ministry but will only target non-Thai travellers. The agency has reasoned that it still needs to track data from the TM.6 cards for market analysis, so the cards are being redesigned for that purpose.

It has long been apparent that the TM.6 form is a waste of time and energy for both travellers and immigration officers. If an e-system were used instead, all important information about passport holders that the state needs to know, including name, date of birth, nationality, and country of origin, would just pop up on the computer screens of immigration officers. For Thai travellers, this information can be obtained from their identification cards and driving licences, as well as passports.

For foreign visitors, forcing them to complete the TM.6 card with the same information about themselves time and time again is a tiresome process. Shortly after they are processed, the forms end up in storage somewhere before eventually being thrown away.

It should be noted that most developed countries have ditched such forms and opt for other measures that serve them better. Keeping such useless documents is an unwise waste of resources, and a burden in terms of storage and eventual destruction.

With 33 million tourists arriving the kingdom last year, this means 33 million cards were processed. If the number of cards filled in by Thais is added to that, the number becomes absolutely enormous.

Any efforts to streamline immigration work in order to shorten the waiting queues at immigration counters are welcome. However, the government has to invest more in modern information technology and human resources to enable the immigration agency to improve its efficiency and provide a better service. Increasing the number of immigration counters, providing more automated passport control machines as well as biometric equipment, such as retina or fingerprint scanners, would be more helpful.

With regard to the Tourism Ministry's claimed need for the continued use of TM.6 forms, albeit modified to suit non-Thais, whether the agency can actually tap the information for marketing-oriented goals remains a moot point. The ministry needs to prove beyond all doubt that these forms are actually worth keeping.

If not, the ministry must drop its stance on the TM.6 cards, and look for new, smarter tactics to obtain the necessary information to help make the country a real tourism hub.

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