As managers and leaders in the security field, our first and most sacred responsibility is, of course, to provide for the safety of the people who fall within our areas of responsibility. As recent world events, from political unrest to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, ash clouds and other events have shown, the unexpected can always present us with challenges in fulfilling our Duty of Care to our international travelers, expatriates and their dependents.

Add to these the usual threats of criminal activity, terrorism, medical emergencies and numerous  other day-to-day  pitfalls we face, and there can be no doubt as to the need for us to better understand the risks our people face when outside their home country. It’s also important that we know how best to evaluate and rate these risks, in order to be able to better communicate risk concerns to our colleagues in other departments who share in our Duty of Care responsibilities. This includes the C-Suite, medical, travel, risk management, human resources and legal, to name just a few.  This understanding can also help us calibrate our response to risk for our travelers and expatriates.


Appetite for Risk

So where do we start? First, we have to develop an understanding of the environments our travelers and expatriates experience as well as the context in which they live. This can start with a realization that terrorism and violent crime grab the headlines, but are generally not the most commonly encountered dangers to the traveler. 

Evidence from calls for assistance to International SOS shows that terrorism incidents and concerns may affect up to 10 percent of travelers – not necessarily as victims of a terrorist act, but more often as having travel disrupted as a result of terrorist threat information and responses to such information on the part of governments or transportation providers. Crime of all types affects another 30 percent, most often involving petty, non-violent crime such as pick-pocketing, which can also be very disruptive, especially if travel documents, cash and credit cards are stolen.

But up to 60 percent of the difficulties for travelers involve issues and threats other than terrorism and crime. Most notably they are things like automobile accidents (and lack of effective medical emergency response and treatment), medical crises (and, again, lack of adequate treatment facilities), natural disasters and political or labor unrest (such as the anti-austerity demonstrations and work stoppages affecting many countries in the wake of the global economic crisis).

With this in mind, we realize that the country security threat rating must account for a number of factors in addition to those related to terrorism and crime. Certainly it must factor in threats to travelers and expatriates by political violence including terrorism, insurgency, politically-motivated unrest and war, social unrest like sectarian, communal and ethnic violence, and crime.  But other factors, including transportation infrastructure, effectiveness of security and emergency services and susceptibility to natural disasters are also considered.

It is easy to see the importance of these factors. If you don’t have a reliable ambulance service to take you to a state-of-the-art, or at least adequate, hospital emergency room after sustaining injuries in a traffic accident, routine injuries can quickly become life-threatening.  And of course, if you call the police and they have no response capability, you may be on your own trying to manage care for someone who is thousands of miles away.

Another point to remember is that country risk ratings are, by nature, broad and provide a consolidated overview to assist travelers, expatriates and managers in their decision-making process regarding secure travel. No overall risk rating can accurately reflect conditions in an entire country, and it is often the case that conditions vary so widely within a country that different regions or cities must be assigned different ratings.


Risk Ratings Revisited

The ratings most often applied to define risk levels are: Insignificant, Low, Moderate, High and Extreme. 

Insignificant: Countries with an insignificant risk level typically see very low rates of violent crime, isolated incidents of petty crime, and virtually no political violence or civil unrest. With no recent history of terrorism, countries of insignificant risk have effective security and emergency services and a high standard of infrastructure and transportation services. Countries with insignificant risk include: American Samoa, Denmark, Greenland, Sweden and Luxembourg.

Low: Countries with a low risk level have low violent crime rates and are generally free of racial, sectarian or political violence or civil unrest. Terrorist organizations have only limited operational capabilities, and authorities maintain adequate security, sound and infrastructure. International travelers and expatriates are unlikely to be directly targeted or severely disrupted. Countries with low risk include: Canada, United Arab Emirates, Portugal, Poland and Argentina.

Moderate: Countries with a moderate risk level may experience periodic political unrest, violent protests and insurgency. With sporadic acts of terrorism, there may be terrorist organizations with significant operational capacities. Violent crime rates are likely to impact foreigners, and infrastructure, security and emergency services are weak. Transport services are subject to periodic disruption. Countries with moderate risk include: Egypt, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mozambique and Honduras.

High: Countries with a high risk level experience regular periods of political instability and high levels of corruption. Protests are frequently violent and may target or disrupt foreigners. There is a high level of incidental risk to travelers from terrorism or insurgency, and communal, sectarian and racial violence are common. The infrastructure, security, emergency services and legal processes are poor. Countries with high risk include: Algeria, Kyrgyzstan, Haiti, Chad and Liberia.

Extreme: Countries with an extreme risk level may be in a state of war as government control, and law and order are minimal or non-existent. There is a serious threat of violent targeted attacks against travelers and expatriates by terrorists and insurgents. Transport services are typically severely degraded or non-existent. In extreme risk countries, armed escort and stringent preventative security precautions are essential, but may not be sufficient to prevent serious injury, kidnap or loss of life. Countries with extreme risk include: Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

Kidnappings, armed banditry, residential thefts and brutal killings occur across Somalia. Assaults against travelers on roads and highways are widely prevalent. In Afghanistan, foreign aid workers are often targeted for violence and kidnapping. Kabul experiences high levels of robbery and carjacking. The same holds true in Iraq where kidnapping is a major threat to foreigners, including journalists and relief workers. And in the Gaza Strip, attacks by Palestinian militants against Israeli targets have resulted in frequent Israeli military offensives.


Consider the Source

It is also important to obtain information from a variety of courses including:

•  Government– Organizations such as OSAC, the state department and foreign offices provide important local information about the threats faced.

•  Private services– Organizations without capabilities rely on private services to provide the latest intelligence from on the ground. It is important to choose a service that meets all of your needs.

•  Local business– Identify local businesses that can offer information on the latest situation in a country.

•  Industry colleagues– Rely on professional networking groups and associations to provide insight on the threats as well as on the strategies their organization is using.

•  Media– During an event, organizations can also now look to rely on social media to obtain information as well as identify the safety of their travelers and expatriates.

•  Personal experience– It is important to use personal experiences after living in a specific region of the world to inform your organization of the possible threats in that region. 


Boiling it all Down

The offshoot of all this analysis is that to mitigate risk and ensure the safety and security of your travelers to the maximum extent possible, you need to be able to assess the level of risk in your travelers’ environment; prepare your travelers for travel; and prepare your organization to respond in the event of a various types of individual emergency or crisis. In essence, best practice in travel risk management requires the ability to:

•  Prepare your people for travel, and your organization to support them;

•  Track personnel and maintain the capability to identify where they are at any point;

•  Inform staff and managers with situational updates on developing threats;

•  Advise travelers with regionally focused, all hazards expertise; and

•  Respond to emergency situations as they unfold, to include medical and security and other types of emergencies, including, at times, multiple emergencies in various locations around the world.


Anticipating threats is key to staying ahead. When a situation arises, raise the risk level profile to make travelers to this area aware of the increased risks. While forecasting can be a challenge, it is important to understand the threat level of your environment. Monitor situations for threat drivers and identify when things change and how those changes affect employees and the organization. These drivers may include political, economic and religious events.

None of this is easy without an integrated, state-of-the-art, travel risk management program that incorporates the capability to accomplish these five steps. If you are going to manage and mitigate risk to travelers as identified and rated through the threat rating, then you need to develop such a program, implement it, and be sure to practice it with all of the relevant stakeholders in your organization. That’s the only sure way to maximizing your success in keeping your most valuable assets – your people – safe and secure.