How to stay safe in the post bin Laden world

The US State Department has updated its Worldwide Travel Alert to reflect “recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan” (read: the killing of Osama bin Laden). According to the revised text

Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, US citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations. US citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. This alert expires August 1, 2011.

Anxiety-inducing language, to be sure.

Still, bear in mind that according to a recent article by the Financial Times‘ Gideon Rachmann, even in the five years immediately following 9/11 – and including the 9/11 attacks themselves – the average American had only a 1 in 500,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack (the odds of an American being murdered are 1 in 18,000; of dying in a car accident 1 in 9,000).

Regardless, staying safe abroad is no laughing matter for any expat.

Below are some general expat safety tips:

Be aware of your surroundings. Expats are far more likely to run afoul of common street criminals than hardened terrorists. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, especially in large groups of people. If you’re packed tightly into a confined space, such as a metro car or open-air market, secure your valuables in a front pocket.

Know the language. Knowing even a few key phrases of the local language may tip you off if shady business is brewing nearby.

Don’t make yourself an easy target. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or other valuables, and don’t advertise that you’re foreign if you can help it. In many countries this can be as simple as not making a scene in your native language (in those where you look significantly different from the local population due to skin color, etc, this may be difficult or impossible, however). Finally, don’t impair your judgement and awareness by abusing drugs and alcohol.

Most importantly:

Go with your gut. If a situation seems unsafe, get out – preferably in the company of someone you trust.

The key to expat safety in most countries is the careful use of common sense.

Nonetheless, there are some countries with both serious security issues and a pronounced lack of effective law enforcement (Mexico and Pakistan spring readily to mind). Expats moving to such countries may want to look into formal threat assessment and personal defense training. A number of private firms specialize in providing these services. Many are managed by executives with decades of law enforcement or military experience.

If you’re planning to move or travel extensively abroad, read up on the safety and security climate in the countries you’ll be visiting.

Understanding any risks and knowing how best to manage them will ease your mind when travelling, and ultimately help ensure you make the most of your time abroad!