Claire Licciardo (right). Pic by Luke Marsden.
Claire Licciardo (right). Pic by Luke Marsden.

Coast woman ‘went to hell and back again’

"IT was 11 days of pure hell. I went to hell and back. Horrific."

Locked up in a Thai immigration detention centre, Claire Johnson, also known as Claire Licciardo, was living her worst nightmare, banged up abroad, fighting to get home to Australia.

Ms Johnson, a former Gold Coast cosmetic tourism business owner who had been travelling to Thailand four times a year for the past 14 years, slammed reports and innuendo she had been locked up for working in the sex tourism industry.

Claire Johnson. Picture: Guy Tadman
Claire Johnson. Picture: Guy Tadman

"It's not true, no I haven't, that's 100 per cent untrue," Ms Johnson said.

"I work in cosmetic surgery for God's sake.

"Idiots can say anything, it's a sign of the times.

"I've had about seven fake profiles on Facebook alone. It's really easy to steal photos of mine."

Rather a stolen handbag and passport was the beginning of the nightmare for the cosmetic tourism worker, she says she was forced to sign a document by Thai authorities to say she had overstayed her visa by 111 days. She was detained and put in a room with 200 other people for 11 days.

Claire Licciardo (right). Pic by Luke Marsden.
Claire Licciardo (right). Pic by Luke Marsden.


"I went to Europe in July 2017 for the summer, then I went to Bangkok, but spent most time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and some of the other islands, I was everywhere through South-East Asia," she said.

"I was on holidays, I had a few clients, but not really working. I had a few personal things happening, I was on a break.

"Then a few months ago, I had my handbag stolen. It had my passport in it … I was speaking with immigration, the consulate, I was doing everything I was told.

Claire Licciardo
Claire Licciardo

"It was a real issue to get all of my documents to get my passport, but I wasn't concerned at all.

"While I was waiting for my new passport, I missed my flight home."

Told she had to pay a fine and then contradicted by the embassy, Ms Johnson went into the immigration centre in Bangkok on January 8.

"I did what I was told and I didn't even know they had detained me, that I was arrested. I was never given any paperwork. I still to this day don't have any paperwork.

"No one told me what was going on, they wouldn't let me call the embassy, I couldn't do anything, they just detained me.

"They made me sign something in Thai, which I protested, but they said if I didn't sign it, I wouldn't go ever.

"I've never been detained before, I've never been to prison, I never thought I would see the inside of a Thai jail. They don't call it a jail, but it's a jail."

The true hell would soon be revealed and for 11 days Ms Johnson says she lived it.

"There was over 200 people in our room in the immigration detention centre in Bangkok.

"You had to pay for water, pay to sleep on the floor, pay for food, wow.

"They don't let you out for 24 hours.

"I didn't think I would be able to survive one day, people were killing themselves, people were dying. There were women, children, grown men crying in there. It's horrendous.

"There's no medical help, it's brutal.

"It was totally terrifying … my story was similar to a lot of others, but there was girls in there who had been trafficked over the border."

She said there wasn't much hope, nothing she could do.

"I was crying and everyone was saying I was lucky because I was Australian, I wouldn't be in there long, saying I'd only be in there for two weeks. I couldn't believe two weeks.

"There was a blatant disregard for any type of human rights in there.

Claire Johnson Photo: Facebook.
Claire Johnson Photo: Facebook.

"On the Thursday (January 10), they called me and took me to court, they were all quite nice. In fact they were too nice, like creepy, asking for my phone number, my Facebook. I thought 'I need to get out of here'.

"I had to pay a 2000 baht fine … then they said I needed a flight home, so my boyfriend bought me a flight home.

"I thought 'great, I can go, my drama is over'. Then they said I had to go back to the IDC, then it was tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow that I could go. They didn't let me out, I couldn't call anyone, felt like I was thrown in there and the key has been thrown away."

Gold Coast woman Claire Johnson (centre) with friends from the medical industry in Thailand. Photo: Facebook.
Gold Coast woman Claire Johnson (centre) with friends from the medical industry in Thailand. Photo: Facebook.

Ms Johnson said she was able to get her hands on her phone and send messages for help.

"I was scared, I was worried about my friends and family, they were concerned. I was able to get my phone and send some messages.

"My hands were shaking, I couldn't even spell 'help me' properly, I was terrified.

"I asked a girl that I knew who worked in media to contact the media to help me."

Ms Johnson said after those messages got out, the next day she got called to go and meet the Captain.

"He was speaking to me like a person because it was very dehumanising upstairs (in the detention), they try to break you, the feeling of being helpless and hopeless and it's effective.

"I knew something was going on, he said 'you've paid the fine, have you got more money?', I told him I did and he said I could go.


Gold Coast woman Claire Johnson (left) spent New Year’s Eve with new friends in Thailand. Photo: Facebook.
Gold Coast woman Claire Johnson (left) spent New Year’s Eve with new friends in Thailand. Photo: Facebook.

"I said that I'd already been through this and you wouldn't let me go, I don't want to waste money on a third flight … he doesn't care, if I'm wasting money, I'd rather be paying bribes, eating and getting a phone call."

She said it was very quick from there, the next day she called the embassy and they told her they would be there the next day and she could go home.

"I got the ticket (from the embassy) and they said 'tomorrow'. I was crying. I said 'no, not tomorrow'. Time has never gone so slow in my life."

Ms Johnson was on a flight back to Australia on January 18, home in Sydney on January 19.

Now that she's home, Ms Johnson is still reliving the nightmare, unaware if she's allowed to return to Thailand, even if she wanted.

"I'm really concerned about the people still there, it's really bothering me. I'm not sleeping, I'm not eating.

"I know what it's like in there, I feel very helpless.

"A spotlight needs to be shone on what's going on in there. It's not OK to treat humans like that, not me, not anyone.

"We're not prisoners, we'd done nothing.

"In terms of a humanitarian level, no one should be treated like I was.

"I'm never going to complain a day again in my life, I've got fresh food and water.

"I've been quite traumatised to be honest."