How safe is travel in 2022? Critical risk expert Matt Newton tells us what concerns businesses operating abroad should be aware of, and what steps we can take.
We’re two years on from the start of the pandemic and with the ongoing increase in global vaccination rates, travel bans are easing. As countries begin to reopen, there’ll no doubt be an increase in travel, both for pleasure and business, as the prospect of leaving the confines of our house – and our country – becomes a possibility.
Whilst thinking about venturing out though, it’s important to appreciate that the world has not been standing still – even if it feels like we have. The response to the pandemic has stretched all countries, rich, poor, developed, democratic and authoritarian; new and old grievances have come to the fore, economies have been shaken and security services have been stretched to breaking point.
For businesses, especially those operating in high risk zones (and even zones that were formerly perceived as being safe) it’s vital to be aware of how the travel landscape has changed, understand the impact of this global unrest and learn how to prepare and respond accordingly. Whilst businesses and their employees are the main target for many of the current concerns, there is also a degree of risk to individuals travelling for pleasure.
We’re focusing on three major concerns you should be aware of in 2022 – civil activism, criminal organisation, and extortion risks – and providing advice on what you can do to mitigate these risks.
Civil activism is on the increase, as are the chances that it may turn violent. As we’ve seen with situations such as the 2021 Covid clashes in the Netherlands, this threat is not restricted to third world countries. The potential for innocent bystanders to get caught up in civil commotion in even the most unlikely of places is a concern. In the worst-case scenarios this activism, alongside a stretched or complicit security force, could mean governments themselves collapsing into chaos.
Coups d’état are trending, with four in 2021, including Myanmar, Mali, Guinea and Sudan and one in Burkina Faso in 2022. This type of political instability will be a growing concern for organisations and their staff, especially those operating in high risk areas where the likelihood is increased. Foreigners are particularly at risk in these situations as they are often a target when a state responds to the threat of internal strife.
Those countries in which freedoms are limited will target real or perceived dissent, even if that involves detaining foreign nationals. Often individuals will be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there are also plenty of examples of foreign nationals being targeted in countries hostile to the West, such as China, Russian and Venezuela.
Lockdowns have varied globally in length and severity. These severely impacted all criminal organisation, particularly those who relied on extortion and kidnap for ransom and meant many had to diversify or evolve their operations. Kidnap for ransom figures, naturally, dropped as a result of lockdowns. As the world opens up, it would seem that many criminal organisations are looking to make up for lost time and income.
Security forces remain stretched by internal strife, or subject to their own corruption issues; and the worsening economic situation in many countries means more people will have turned to crime as a means of providing income. The expectation is that these kidnap figures will bounce back as people return and may impact zones previously perceived as safe, while ransom demands may also increase to help make up the shortfall.
Other forms of extortion are also a threat and will have evolved in response to new trends and developments in, for example, cryptocurrency and decentralised finance. Even the most experienced commercial travellers who are used to operating in high risk areas should be aware of the increased risks of express kidnapping and virtual kidnapping.
In Brazil there have been a spate of lightening kidnappings where citizens have been snatched off the street and forced to make cash transfers in order to be released. These forms of extortion will likely increase the most. Although many of the tactics used are well known to regular travellers, criminals have had time to update their scams (many Covid or vaccine related) and alter their tactics, making it more likely that individuals will again be vulnerable.
How to stay safe when you travel: Advice from the experts
Now we know about these major risks – what can we do to mitigate them? Clearly, the threat landscape has evolved from the world we left behind in 2020, and businesses will have to re-evaluate the risks posed to their employees and ensure their response efforts are adequately robust. In light of these new developments, here are some steps that businesses can take to ensure they’re prepared:
- Organisations should ensure that any threat and risk assessments are updated with current analysis to account for how environments have changed during the pandemic period. This process may include reassessing locations that were previously considered low risk.
- This is an ideal time to ensure response plans are up to date and have been robustly tested. Crisis response plans from before the pandemic may well be redundant in the face of new developments.
- Confirm that information, such as proof of life answers, are up to date.
- A trusted individual (not travelling in your party) should have ab up-to-date itinerary of trips. Staff should be encouraged to stay in touch with fellow travelling colleagues as well as head office. Consider sharing a live location update while in particularly high-risk locations.
- Engage the advice of a security expert before travelling to high-risk locations. They will offer advice on travel mitigation risks and relevant training courses.
- Lockdown social media – this might provide valuable information to hostile third parties such as state security services, criminals and kidnappers.
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