Thai hostages’ return overshadowed by debt woes

Freed: Boonthom (second from left) and Natthawaree (centre) taking part in a traditional welcoming ceremony for their safe return to Thailand. — AFP

A THAI couple were welcomed home by dozens of well-wishers seeking to lift their spirits after they were held hostage for weeks by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But the return of Boonthom Pankhong and Natthawaree Mulkan, who had worked in Israel, was overshadowed by worries they might not be able to pay off their mounting debt – unless they work abroad again.

The couple were among at least 32 Thais abducted by Hamas when they attacked Israel on Oct 7 in attacks that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, and saw around 240 hostages taken.

The 45-year-old travelled to Israel to work on a farm six years ago – one of around 30,000 Thais, mostly from poor rural provinces, who were in the country during the Oct 7 attack.

Boonthom said he had not been back to Thailand since. He and his partner Natthawaree worked on the same farm in southern Israel but said they were held separately after being abducted by Hamas.

The couple were among the first 17 Thais released by Hamas in November, during a short-lived truce with Israel following weeks of negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Many Thais chose to work in Israel where they can earn significantly larger salaries as farm labourers, under strict fixed-term contracts.

Natthawaree said she had earned about 50,000 baht (RM6,640) a month – which she said she used to support her two children from a previous marriage back in Thailand.

Thailand’s labour ministry has promised returnees around 50,000 baht in compensation, with the government also stating they would be eligible for a low-interest loan of up to 150,000 baht (RM19,900).

But Natthawaree said she had received less than half of what the government promised, and desperately needed more to support her family and pay off existing debts. She said she still owes about 500,000 baht (RM66,400).

“I am finding a way to work abroad again,” Natthawaree said, adding that she is contemplating applying to work in Australia to pay off her debts.

“Now we have nothing,” she said. — AFP

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