Author: Visa Adviser
What to do when you find yourself in civil unrest while traveling.
Recent mass protest in Hong Kong, the Yellow Vest protest in France, and the climate change protest in London that shut down major streets, show that even well-visited countries may sometimes experience civil unrest. In one case, William Nguyen, a U.S. student studying in Singapore, was jailed by Vietnamese police while on holiday in the country, because he git too close to a protest. Nguyen was eventually deported, but not before high-level intervention from the U.S. Department of State.
Nguyen’s story is not uncommon as travelers can easily find themselves in the midst of strife or protest, even in unexpected, well-established countries. Therefore it’s important to be prepared for such an event.
LHA Travel reached out to an expert on handling crises to find the best-practices for travelers that find themselves amid civil unrest. Below are the six primary take aways from our conversation:
- Don’t get involved. It’s important to suppress your curiosity and instead to distance oneself from known protest areas and popular mass gathering points.
- Do your research. Try and get as much information about the local situation and associated risks before making a decision on whether to stay in the city or country or to leave.
- Follow local curfews. Often civil unrest will trigger a government curfew; traveling during curfew hours is often hazardous and could lead to arrest and detention, so find out about, and follow carefully, any curfew hours restrictions.
- Leave mindfully. If you feel you need to leave, avoid the temptation to rush to the nearest embarkation point until you ascertain whether the route is safe, secure, and whether the airport, seaport, or train terminal is still operating. There’s nothing worse than rushing to the airport to find it’s closed and you’re forced to then retreat back to where you started.
- Stay aware. Civil unrest attracts opportunist criminals. They will seek to exploit confusion and take advantage of the scarcity of law enforcement who, often as not, will be concentrated in known protest areas to try and contain the situation. Criminals will look to target anyone on the street caught up in the confusion. By avoiding areas of active protest, you reduce your risk, but stay vigilant to protect yourself from crime that might be occuring just outside of the main protest areas. Also, looting often accompanies civil unrest and will likely trigger a robust response from the authorities. If you spot what looks to be criminal theft or destruction of property, remove yourself from the situation. The last thing a traveller needs is to get caught up in clashes between law enforcement and large groups of potentially violent protestors looking to steal or vandalize property.
- Shelter in place. If the streets are too dangerous, but you also cannot leave the country or city you are in, hunker down in your hotel, hostel, or another safe area. Seek as much information about what’s happening from credible news providers like, BBC world service, contact your embassy, report your location/status, listen to their advice, and only move when it’s safe to do so. If and when you do move, stay away from known protest areas and travel during daylight.
Before visiting any country, one should always find out the embassy or consulate representing the country. Have that information as handy as your flight and hotel confirmation. Additionally, in the event that your life or personal safety is at risk, a list of local emergency numbers may be found here: https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/students-abroad/pdfs/911_ABROAD.pdf.Find the country you plan to visit and keep that number handy for the trip.
The U.S. also offers the Smart Travel Enrollment Program (STEP) travel registration. Through STEP, one can register to allow the U.S. to maintain a record of its population throughout the world. Registering for the program allows travelers to get updates relevant to the country before and during their travel. The site also includes any advice, instructions, or advisories that might be appropriate to the events that may be unfolding in the host country. A link to the registration may be found here: https://step.state.gov/.