Caught in a Crisis Abroad

By Scott Stewart – Re-Blogged From

The past week, a “non-coup” forced Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from power. And while the Kenyan Supreme Court certified the re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta, it is almost certain the country’s political unrest will continue. But this turmoil is not really that unusual; there almost always are crisis events of one type or another roiling some part of the world during any given week. And this means that at any given time there are travelers or expatriates who find themselves caught in tense situations in a foreign country. We thought it would be helpful to provide some guidance on how to react when caught in such a situation.

Residents of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, thank soldiers on the street after the resignation of President Robert Mugabe.


First Things First

As we’ve previously written, it is critical for people to create contingency plans well before a crisis erupts. This necessity is not just limited to those living or traveling abroad; every family and business should have contingency plans. As we’ve seen with the recent earthquakes in Mexico and the hurricanes that hit the United States, one doesn’t have to be in Zimbabwe to experience a crisis event. However, that said, contingency plans are especially important for people living abroad, where they may not have the same support from the government that they would have in the developed world. We also recommend having plans in place before a crisis hits, because that affords the opportunity to develop, test, practice and refine the plan before the chaos of a crisis.

Certainly, having a plan prepared and tested and your go bag prepacked are helpful steps, but knowing when to grab your go bag and execute your evacuation plan, or when to shelter in place, takes more than mere planning. It also requires the ability to gather and then rapidly and accurately assess information during a situation that may change rapidly.

Information Gathering

As I’ve written before, analyzing information during a breaking event can be very difficult. The challenge of trying to sort through all the noise to identify accurate information has increased considerably since the advent of social media. Social media can be an incredibly useful tool during a breaking event, but it can also be a curse. This is especially true in any sort of a politically connected event because individuals — and indeed governments — are now using social media to disseminate misinformation and disinformation. Still, if you can follow the right people on social media, they can provide a lot of excellent information in almost real time.

Speaking of on-the-ground, near real-time intelligence, local friends, employees and neighbors can be valuable sources of information during a crisis. Their family and social networks often can help provide information about events in places where there is little other reporting. A hybrid of this has also developed on social media in which local groups such as Valor por Tamaulipas in Mexico and Mosul Eye in Iraq help notify area residents about problems so they can be avoided.

I also strongly suggest that citizens register with their respective foreign ministries and opt to receive information from them. The Australian Smartraveller program and its counterparts from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and other countries can provide useful advice and information. Although they are slower than the news media or social media, since anything they publish needs to be approved and coordinated through the bureaucracy, these services will normally provide advice on when to shelter in place or when to evacuate. They also will normally provide information to help evacuate their citizens from a particular location.

As an aside, the U.S. State Department is in the middle of a project to change the way it publishes travel advice and warnings to make them easier to understand and act upon. I’ve talked to a senior State Department official about the changes and think they will be very beneficial to expatriates and travelers. I would not be surprised to see similar changes from the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries.

The Need for Self-Reliance

It is also important to note that once a government pulls its embassy and consular staff out of a country, it can no longer do much to help its citizens who stay behind. This was the case in Yemen, where U.S. citizens complained about the lack of assistance from the U.S. government after it closed its embassy there and withdrew all government personnel. The embassy had been warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Yemen for years, and it had repeatedly asked Americans to leave the country before closing the embassy in February 2015. Despite these repeated warnings, Americans who chose to remain in Yemen after the embassy closed had the audacity to claim the U.S. government had somehow abandoned them. The lesson here is if people decide to disregard government warnings, they may very well find themselves on their own like those Americans in Yemen.

Having a plan prepared and tested and your go bag prepacked are helpful steps, but knowing when to grab your kit and execute your evacuation plan — or when to shelter in place — takes more than mere planning.

Even in normal times, people must take responsibility for their own security. It is dangerous to rely on the government to keep you safe from every possible threat. This is doubly true during a crisis event, when the local government is likely to be focused on the crisis at hand and maybe even on regime survival. Taking care of civilians, especially foreigners, is simply not a priority, even if the local government had the resources to make it one. Even when a foreign government wants to help its citizens, it often lacks the capability and authority to do so. Thus citizens must not rely solely on their government in a crisis event. They need to make alternative plans. Even if people participate in an evacuation operation arranged by a government, they will be expected to pay their way.

Accepting government assistance to leave a country may be one possible course of action, but a good contingency plan should also have departure alternatives that include other options, as well as land or sea travel in case air travel is suspended. Often local employees, friends or contacts can be very helpful in crafting and executing such plans.

Finally, I urge people to avoid the temptation of wanting to see what all the fuss is about. Curious people naturally want to see for themselves what is happening and therefore seem to be drawn to demonstrations, coup sites and other places where they could blunder into trouble — especially as foreigners who could be seen as meddling. Forget about grabbing that selfie inside the protest mob or taking a video of the firefight to put on Instagram. It is simply better to give such places and events a wide berth.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor’s analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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