Helping those away from Norway:
An interview with Brita Ve Magnusson
The consular world can seem a mystery to most—what do they do? Bail expatriates out of jail? Or simply help expats and entrepreneurs have an easier go of it in a foreign country? Relative newcomer Brita Ve Magnusson is here to clear the mist. She’s been working at the Norwegian embassy’s consular section in Bangkok for almost a year after stints in Abu Dhabi, Miami, Washington D.C. and Strasbourg. “Mainly we’re here to help Norwegians,” said Mrs Magnusson. The consular office helps Norwegians— individuals or businesses. For businesses, it’s mainly documents which need to be verified by the embassy. It also assists Norwegian businesses with staff issues such as Norwegian passport renewals, visas for the company’s Thai staff, etc. For Norwegian citizens in Thailand in private capacity, the embassy spends a hefty portion of their time assisting the approximately 6,000 Norwegian retirees in Thailand. “We get a lot of questions about health insurance,” said Mrs Magnusson. “If you want to retire and move to Thailand, you can pay a small percentage of the coverage to the Norwegian government, then when you receive your healthcare in Thailand, a large part of the cost will be refunded. It’s not complete coverage, but it’s pretty good and it covers some medicines. I believe Norwegian pensioners are very lucky compared to other countries, as I’ve heard the local insurance schemes aren’t that comprehensive here.” The embassy also travels to the provinces one week a year when they visit Norwegians in Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin and Udon Thani. She said they are mostly retirees at these locations, and some receive social security or disability pensions from the Norwegian government that allow them to travel. Norway also has consulates in Pattaya and Phuket. Retirees receive a special visa in Thailand, she said, but it has to be renewed every year. A requirement for the visa is retirees have to show they receive a pension above a certain
amount. This detail made the news recently when the UK and Sweden, among others, decided to cut the amount of pension they pay to overseas retirees.
“Norway now taxes 15% of your pension if you live in Thailand if you can’t prove you pay taxes to the Thai government,” she said. “But so far we have not heard any talk of Norway cutting pensions.”
Despite these services, the general public still has some fuzzy ideas about just what her office can do.
“Very often people have misconceptions about what the consular office does. When people end up in jail, often they assume when we arrive we are there to get them out. This is not the case. We are like a messenger. The main thing we do is try to ensure they can contact a lawyer,” she said.
While most people think about criminals they read about in the news going to jail, Mrs Magnusson said that is not always the case.
“A lot of people get jailed for overstaying their visa. If you get stopped by police for overstaying your visa, you are taken to court where you must pay a fine as well as your air ticket home. The Thai government does not buy your air ticket home,” she said. “Some people have stayed in jail for years because they have neither the money nor the relatives or friends willing to help them pay the amount due. The maximum amount they can fine you at airport immigration is 20,000 baht, but you’d be surprised at the people that take their chances. You can be sent to jail, or the court, of even fined more if you don’t pay the airport fine.”
Of course her job involves a lot more than dealing with Norwegians in prison.
Though Mrs Magnusson said adjusting to Bangkok living was relatively easy because of all the support the embassy provided, including finding a place to stay, she did point out she was ready for a rest before her holiday back to Norway.
“Living in Bangkok can be stressful, and the heat takes its toll as well,” she said. “Embassy staff from the Ministry are allowed one free travel allowance per year, provided part of the holiday is spent in Norway. The ministry wants to keep you in touch with the country. Mrs Magnusson speaks four languages and has travelled extensively in her career, including as a travelling secretary for a spell. Travel also figured prominently in a recent episode at the embassy. Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA (shortened simply Norwegian) recently decided to open a route to Bangkok, and the airline wanted to use Thai crew members for much of its Asian routes. Though air crew do not need work permits while they are flying, they are required if you are going to be trained in Norway. The Thai air crew were hired because they would be cheaper than European staff, but according to Norwegian law you have to pay these employees the same wage as a Norwegian, said an embassy staff member. Norwegian is also contemplating moving its headquarters to Ireland, but in the meantime the company has created a subsidiary named Norwegian Long Haul for the routes to Thailand and the US. The embassy heard they had a tight deadline to turn around several visas and work permits for all the Thai workers, but managed to handle the crush of paperwork in time without causing an international incident.
In fact, most folks who apply for visas to Norway are approved.
“We have about a 95% approval rating,” said Mrs Magnusson. “There is no real risk of asylum seekers. Most are girlfriends who want to visit their boyfriends in Norway.” Explosive business and tourism interest in the newly opened economy of neighbour Myanmar has led Norway to build its own independent embassy there. The Swedish embassy in Phnom Penh takes care of Norway’s consular business in Cambodia, she said.
Yet the majority of Mrs Magnusson’s work still revolves around helping people.
“We get a lot correspondence from families in Norway worried about their loved ones here. We try to connect people,” she said. “There are some unfortunate cases where Norwegians die in Thailand, and in this instance we help with organising the transport of the coffin or the urn.”
Brita Ve Magnusson