Conversations on the Train: The Repatriation Officer

I‘m sitting next to a gentle man in his mid-forties who has friendly eyes and is balding.

The couple opposite ask me to guess what he does for a living. I take one look and think civil servant.

“Do you work for the government?” I say.

“Good guess,” he replies.

It turns out he’s actually an international repatriation officer. This doesn’t (just) mean organising corpses sent back to the UK when people die abroad. It’s more exciting.

I share my fears (from watching films like Midnight Express) about being put into a Thai Prison. I’ve seen the Drugs Will Result in the Death Penalty signs at Bangkok airport in the past, next to signs saying We ♥ Our King.

“So is it true if you get caught with anything someone may have planted on you you get put in prison forever in Thailand?” I ask.

“We brought back a guy in Thailand who was serving 46 years for possession of a small quantity of drugs… He’d been in for nine,” says the man.

“How did you get him out?”

“We applied for a King’s pardon.”

“A King’s pardon?”

“Yeah, the Thai King awards several pardons each year. We all turned up in suits to get this guy and he thought it was the end. He thought he was going to be killed. No idea what was going on.”

“Because he was traumatised?”

“Yes. He was offered a lot of counselling when he returned.”

I ask what other people he’s got out of which prisons in the past. He clearly reads ‘what high-profile cases have you dealt with?’ and changes tack.

“Okay, so did you know each EU country has to have its share of war criminals?” He says.

“I didn’t,” I reply.

“Well we brought back the guy from the ITCY.”

“The ITCY is?”

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We got the man responsible for the massacre of 8,000 people and brought him here.”

“And now he’s in a secure unit or something?” I ask.


“Gosh,” I say.

He smiles.

“And that Samantha Orabator, the one in Laos?”

“Oh, the pregnant one?” I look up, remembering.

“Yeah, we brought her back. You would’ve seen me on the telly with that one. And we brought her partner back in September.”

“How did you bring her back?”

“Transit, through Thailand, with two officers and a midwife – as it was late in the pregnancy.”

“Was she alright…was she terrified?”

“No, she was absolutely fine.”

“And how did she get out?”

“An agreement was made. Trouble is there’s no embassy in Laos so it all has to be done by  Australia. There’s an amazing woman,Kate, at the embassy, she’s the person you want to talk to if you’re stuck in a prison out in South East Asia. But the moral is: don’t do something wrong in Laos,” he smiles.

We talk for a bit longer before he takes out his wallet and opens it. Inside is what looks like a US police badge. He’s clearly enjoying my interest in his job and wants me to be excited. I am excited.

“Wow”, I say, “looks like the ones you see in films.”

“When we’re in the States we become federal agents,” he beams.

I laugh because anytime anyone says federal agents I think of Mulder and Skully. But I don’t tell him that.

“So how did you end up doing this job?” I ask.

“I was a missile escort on vehicles with the army. After that I went into sandstone ballast for six years… then got into the prison service. An opening came up – they wanted someone picked up in Cuba – I wrote a report and I got picked.”

He tells me there are ten people doing what he does and at any one time two to four of them will be out of the country.

“What name shall I give you, for the piece?” I ask.

He thinks for a moment then says, “Frank.”

“Frank,” I repeat.

“Yeah – like Frank Drebdin from Police Squad.”