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Chapter 3 Environmental Hazards & Other Noninfectious Health Risks

Safety & Security Overseas

Uzma Javed

Violence is a leading worldwide public health problem and a concern of US citizens traveling, working, or residing abroad. International terrorism and crime are risks anywhere in the world, but international travelers operating in unfamiliar environments face particular hurdles. Travelers overseas, particularly tourists, may not have an immediately accessible network of friends or family to assist them in an emergency. Local government responses to violent activities and crime may not be what US residents expect; an effective local government may not exist to respond at all. Language barriers, unanticipated costs, or different cultural mores can compound an already challenging situation. US travelers should research conditions at their destination to learn what risks they are likely to face and have plans to mitigate those risks while they are abroad.

BEFORE TRAVEL

Travelers need clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information to make decisions about travel plans. This information is available from the Bureau of Consular Affairs (BCA) in the Department of State, the organization charged with protecting US citizens abroad.

BCA assigns every country a travel advisory level ranging from 1 (Exercise Normal Precautions) to 4 (Do Not Travel). Travel advisories describe the risks found in a country and the actions US citizens should take to mitigate those risks. US embassies and consulates abroad may also issue alerts, which inform US citizens of specific safety, security, or health concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends, weather events, and health events. For more details, see http://travel.state.gov/travelsafely.

The Department of State also releases an annual worldwide caution that provides information on universal travel risks, including the threat of terrorism against US citizens and its interests abroad. The country information pages on the BCA website provide all available travel information, including details about entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, transportation, and other relevant topics.

US citizens should enroll with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (http://STEP.state.gov) before traveling abroad. A free service, STEP allows enrollees to receive information from the local US embassy or consulate about safety, security, or health conditions at their destination. It also assists the embassy or consulate to locate missing US citizens or contact them in an emergency, such as a natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.

CRISES ABROAD

Whether traveling or living outside the United States, US citizens should prepare for a potential crisis. The Department of State is committed to assisting US citizens who become victims of crime, need assistance during a crisis or a natural disaster, or who need consular services (such as replacing a lost or stolen passport) or financial assistance to return to the United States. The State Department can also support locating missing US citizens abroad.

US citizens should research the country they are visiting or residing in, stay connected with the nearest US embassy or consulate, and create personal safety plans. For more information about what travelers can do to prepare, or how the Department of State can assist US citizens, visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/crisis-abroad--be-ready.html.

CRIME

One of the most common threats to the safety of US citizens abroad comes from criminal activity. Encourage travelers to research crime trends and patterns at their destination using the Overseas Security Advisory Council website (www.osac.gov). Common-sense strategies to avoid becoming a crime victim are, for the most part, the same everywhere, but the following should be stressed with international travelers:

  • Limit travel at night; travel with a companion, and vary routine travel habits.
  • Do not wear expensive clothing or accessories.
  • Avoid accommodations on the ground floor or immediately next to the stairs, and lock all windows and doors.
  • Take only recommended, safe modes of local transportation.
  • If confronted in a robbery, give up all valuables and do not resist attackers. Resistance can escalate to violence and result in injury or death.

Crime victims overseas should contact the nearest US embassy, consulate, or consular agency. The Department of State can help replace stolen passports, contact family and friends, identify health care providers, explain the local criminal justice process, and connect victims of crime with available resources. However, they do not have the legal authority to conduct a criminal investigation or prosecute crimes.

TERRORISM

Terrorist attacks against Western interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East threaten US citizens living and traveling abroad. Potential targets include high-profile sporting events, public transportation systems, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, shopping malls, and other tourist destinations where US citizens gather in large numbers. Past attacks have ranged from assassinations and kidnappings to suicide operations, hijackings, and bombings.

Despite being a worldwide threat and cause for concern, terrorist attacks have involved relatively few international travelers. From June 2016 through June 2017, only 10 US citizens were killed in terrorist attacks overseas. Travelers can reduce their chances of becoming victims of terrorism by:

  • Looking out for unattended packages or bags in public places and other crowded areas
  • Being cautious of unexpected packages
  • Choosing to wear clothing that does not identify them as a tourist (such as T-shirts bearing the US flag or the logos of a favorite, US-based sports team)
  • Trying to blend in with the locals

These strategies incorporate the same defensive alertness and good judgment that people should use to keep safe from crime. Awareness is key—taking precautions to be aware of surroundings and adopting protective measures.

LOCAL LAWS AND SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES

US citizens are subject to local laws, and if they violate those laws—even unknowingly—may face arrest, imprisonment, or deportation. In addition, some crimes are prosecutable both in the United States as well as in the country where the crime was committed. US citizens arrested or detained abroad should ask local law enforcement and/or prison officials to notify the US embassy or consulate immediately.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) travelers can face unique challenges traveling abroad. Laws and attitudes in some countries may affect safety and ease of travel. Legal protections vary from country to country. Many countries do not legally recognize same-sex marriage. More than 70 countries consider consensual same-sex sexual relations a crime, sometimes carrying severe punishment. US citizens should review the Human Rights Report (www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt) for further details.

For specific information about local laws and special circumstances in specific destinations, visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages.html.

USEFUL WEBSITES

Department of State

Overseas Security Advisory Council: www.osac.gov/Pages/Home.aspx

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