Help­ing those away from Nor­way:

An in­ter­view with Brita Ve Mag­nus­son

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - by Eric Baker

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Norway

© PressReader. All rights reserved.