Political or civil unrest is an unfortunate reality in modern society and can be experienced anywhere, in any country at any time. From political protests and rallies to full blown riots, here are some expert tips to avoid and deal with any type of civil unrest whilst travelling the world.
Many political demonstrations are not huge risk factors in and of themselves, however there is always the risk of escalated civil unrest, riots and violence, as has been seen in places as diverse as France, China and even Thailand in recent years to name just a few, even the UK and America are not immune to sudden riots or violent flare ups, and there is always the chance that these can severely disrupt your travel plans or even put your safety at risk.
That is why it is essential to evaluate the situation very carefully, move beyond what the media headlines are saying and make fluid, reasoned and common sense decisions based on your own risk assessment of each situation, and the best way to do that is have a plan of action for each circumstance. Here are some expert tips on staying safe during any political demonstration, riot or civil unrest when you travel.
Before you go.
- Do your research. Obviously the news media and social media are going to be a major source of information about any form of political or civil unrest and listening to official government advice on what to do is important, but is just a starting point. Remember that many government warnings are overblown at worst or generalised at best, but they are still a good indication of whether you should look deeper into what the situation is on the ground or not.
- Use common sense assessment. Ask yourself if these are peaceful protests or is there potential for violence to flare up. Is the unrest in a very specific localised area that can easily be avoided? If so what specific area is considered unsafe? Is it the whole country or just a very small, specific spot? All these questions will help you risk assess if it is safe to travel to an area or not.
- Weigh up the risks vs the benefits of cancelling you trip or changing plans. Sometimes the decision is made for you if the government raises the travel advisory risk level to the highest level of 4 and cancels all flights, shuts down airports and advises against all travel. This is actually rare though and most advisories are at level 2, so you need to ask yourself can you get a refund or exchange on your ticket, how much would you lose if not and is that worth the risk, is it possible that the situation could escalate or get even worse and is it possible you may end up stranded there with no way out? All of these are things you should be considering.
- Leave copies of your itinerary and contact details with friends or family. This isn’t just for their peace of mind, although it certainly does help with that too, this is about giving you extra forms of help if something does happen, and ways for them to try and help if it does. If you can’t contact the embassy or emergency services and they hear of an attack on the news, they may be able to do it for you and give them your details.
- Gather all the essential information you might need and keep a copy with you. Telephone numbers and locations of your country’s embassy, local police stations, hospitals and other emergency services, back up emergency contact details for your friends and family and even local transport or accommodation details are all useful in an emergency.
- Know what to do before it happens. Before you arrive in any new place have a back up plan to evacuate and get out in an emergency. This may include having funds for an emergency flight or train ticket away from the area.
- Get the right travel insurance. Getting the right travel insurance is absolutely essential for any trip, but ensuring that you get one that covers you for every eventuality is very tricky. As unlikely and as rare as it may be to become involved in any trouble whilst travelling, there is a small risk and you need to be covered for it.
Preparing yourself thouroughly should have the effect of reducing any unwarranted fear or paranoia about any given destination. Caution is good, fear is not.
On the ground.
Odds are when you arrive in a new country and are travelling through it, things will be fine and you will be absolutely safe. There are however ways to decrease the risk factor – no matter how small – of anything bad happening to you.
- Be alert. This really should go without saying. Make yourself become aware of your surroundings, look out for any suspicious activity or objects, and listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, leave.
- Make a plan. If you are with friends, have at least one back up option of where to fall back on and rendezvous if something does happen.
- Try and learn a little bit of the language. Knowing a few basic phrases in the local language is a good idea for any trip at the best of times and will add a whole new level to your travel experience, but you should also learn a few phrases such as ‘help me’, or ‘I’m hurt’, and a few essential words such as hospital or ambulance. These few basic things could come in really useful in an emergency.
How to avoid protests when exploring.
- Take notice of local news. I know when you are travelling the world listening to the news is often the last thing on your mind, but the occasional glance at a headline and chatting to locals can give you infinitely valuable insight.
- Listen to local staff. Locals are often the best source of up to date information and it is often a good idea to listen to them. Hotel or hostel staff in particular are useful as they will specifically be looking out for their guests.
- Avoid large gatherings and demonstrations. I’m not talking about large festivals or popular tourist spots here, they are the reason many people travel to any given destination after all. I’m talking about very specific rallies, political demonstrations, large gatherings where tensions may be running high. Generally they are pretty easy to avoid.
- Don’t be that idiot. If you see or hear of a demonstration or act of unrest then it may be tempting to get closer to see what is going on or take some pictures. Don’t be that idiot.
- Change your plans. If you hear of a planned demonstration near a site that you want to visit, then go somewhere else that day. If you see one happening, simply turn around and find somewhere else to visit.
How to survive a protest if you are caught up in one.
- Don’t panic. Sometimes small demonstrations can escalate or can deteriorate into riots or violent civil unrest quite quickly. If you find yourself in the middle of a situation like this, the first thing to do is not panic.
- Find refuge. At the first opportunity break away and seek refuge in a nearby building, or find a suitable doorway or alley and stay there until the crowd passes
- Back away. If you are caught up in the protest or unrest try to keep to the edge of the crowd if at all possible or try and find a shop doorway or alley to keep out of things until the crowd passes. Try and steer clear of glass shop fronts or cars or anything that could be a potential target.
- Stay calm. If you can step away from the fringe of the crowd do not run, walk firmly but calmly, as running may draw attention to you from demonstrators or the police.
If you get caught up and unintentionally get arrested by the police.
- Be cooperative and calm. The police will be in full on crowd control mode so they won’t necessarily have the time to listen to you there and then. Remember they are just doing their jobs, so don’t resist, ask for help and give them any information they ask for (this may or may not help), but either way stay calm whatever happens and call your embassy and insurance provider as soon as possible.
If unrest breaks out outside of your accommodation.
- Stay where you are. Do not leave your accommodation or go into the street.
- Be prepared. Hopefully you should already have a spare battery and torch in your pack in case of emergencies, make sure everything is always fully charged in case of power cuts or blackouts.
- Stock up. If you have the opportunity try and stock up on water and snacks from your accommodation. Do not go outside.
- Stay away from windows. Don’t be tempted to watch from the window, keep curtains shut and stay away, especially if you hear gunfire or explosions.
- Stay connected. Call your embassy and family as soon as possible and liase with accommodation management to stay updated and they should let you know when things have passed and it is safe to leave.
What to do after any civil unrest.
- Move as soon as it is safe, but not before. As soon as it is possible leave and look for a place to stay in a less volatile area. Evaluate whether is is better to use your emergency flight home.
- Get help. If you have suffered an injury seek medical attention and make a police report for any problems you may have had. Make sure you get a report reference.
- Let everyone know you are okay. Inform the embassy of your whereabouts and let your family know you are safe and if there is anything you need.
Other than taking these reasonable common sense precautions to reduce any potential risk to yourself try not to worry too much. Remember my mantra, precaution is good, paranoia is not! Something bad happening to you is extremely unlikely, but if it does, deal with it calmly, extract yourself as soon as possible and then enjoy the rest of your trip!
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