Font Size: A A A


Safe on assignments abroad

Ways to stay safe on assignments in dangerous countries; by Declan Mulkeen, of Communicaid, pictured.

Most employees who have been offered an assignment abroad have many things to consider, from long term career repercussions to the impact on family members to life style changes between their current country and their new destination. A wide range of emotions are usually experienced by the prospective expatriate: excitement, anticipation about how to make the most of new opportunities, and perhaps a bit of hesitation about the unknown. The successful expatriate will most probably also consider the adaptation process of how to fit into the new country’s business and social culture.

However, there is another consideration that expatriates should also be contemplating: how to stay safe. Although many organisations offer safety and security briefings to assignees about to travel abroad, many more may have given very little consideration about safety matters, or may even leave the employee to their own devices. Others may overdo their safety briefings, making the entire world sound so dangerous that, if taken at face value, the employee might choose to stay home and lock their doors to the outside world.

What should an employee consider when assessing their safety and security abroad? And what about employees who are travelling to a destination that is dangerous due to either political or social instability? How should an employer ensure that a safety briefing strikes the right balance, especially if the employee has no previous experience of working and living in a more challenging environment?

Become informed

Most Western governments publish travel advisories on their official websites. They are a good starting point. But because their advice caters to everyone from novice tourists to seasoned business travellers, their advice is, of necessity, very general and usually overly cautious. Do note that expatriates and frequent business travellers who decide to travel to a destination where there is an explicit government warning not to travel to a country or region may also invalidate their travel insurance. Employees should insist their organisations offer alternative coverage from a specialist insurance provider if they are going to a country officially considered dangerous by their home country.

Personal safety

Being alert to everyday personal safety is a good practice anywhere in the world, even if you live in a relatively safe country. Learn how to minimise being a victim of a mugging, pick pocketing, robbery and the like. Learn about dangerous neighbourhoods in your new destination, ideally from a trusted local contact who has current information on the ground.

In some dangerous countries, it may not be possible for the employee to travel independently, without considerable risk. For those who require close personal security, another set of conditions must be assessed. Is it the location, the value of the employee, or both that increases the risk of personal danger? There are two general schools of thought about personal security – blending in and becoming as invisible as possible, or emphasis on the strength and protection of a highly visible security operation. The employee and their organisation must weigh the pros and cons of both approaches as each set of security requirements are unique.

Political safety

Political safety information about a dangerous destination requires reliable knowledge that goes well beyond what may be presented by the popular media in the employee’s home country. Most Western media, tend to focus on items that play well in their domestic market, and may not always reflect the full realities about the country in question. More often than not, there may be an emphasis on bad news. Additionally, there is the possibility of exaggeration, perhaps making a localised incident sound like a problem in the entire country.

However, political safety does need to be taken seriously. The best advise to the expatriate travelling to a country with political dangers includes identifying the where, when and whys about local no go areas. In addition to understanding ongoing dangerous situations, it is also important to understand the potential impact of protests, funerals, anniversaries and other significant dates and what could happen to anyone who finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Everyday safety

Regardless of the relative safety or danger of a destination, expatriates and their employers should be informed about everyday safety matters that impact all travellers.

Accommodation should be vetted for suitability. Are the premises physically safe? Anything from building structure to balcony rails to secure locks should be considered. Do they have basic health and safety codes in place, such as fire exits and emergency evacuation procedures? Are they taken seriously? Is the accommodation suitable for women, disabled people, etc?

Does the expatriate understand weather and environmental safety issues that are commonly found in their destination? These issues can range from temperature extremes to the impact of pollution to understanding evacuation procedures in case of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters.

Have the appropriate precautions been taken for health issues? These can range from taking precautions in a malaria zone to avoiding questionable hygiene practices in the destination country. Has the expatriate been briefed about food and drink safety, including water?

The biggest safety challenge for most expatriates is not terrorism, physical threats or deadly diseases; it’s road safety. According to the US State Department, there are over 1 million global road deaths annually. Understanding the written – and unwritten – rules of the road will greatly improve your chances of avoiding road accidents. Your choice of transport and, where applicable, your driver, is important. Many expatriates can benefit from a defensive driving course if they decide to drive in their new country. Have a plan of action if you are involved in an accident. Don’t forget that everyone is a pedestrian at some point.


Don’t underestimate the importance of learning the business and social cultural etiquette of your destination. Although making a small social faux pas may not get you in trouble, making a political faux pas could be problematic. Understanding the do’s and don’t of your destination will make your assignment more successful and is an additional insurance policy to help you stay safe, especially in dangerous countries.

This article was written by Declan Mulkeen, Marketing Director at Communicaid a culture and business communication skills consultancy.


Related News