On 23 March 2017, four people were killed in the centre of London when an attacker drove his car along a pavement of a bridge and attempted to storm Parliament stabbing and killing a police officer before being shot by police.
This shocking and tragic incident highlighted the vulnerability of cities which are perceived as being relatively ‘safe’. For me, it called to mind a question that I am often asked by the parents of gap year students and young independent travelers. “Is it safe?” Is London safe? Is Bali safe? Is Moscow safe? Is New York safe? It is a good question – perhaps a key question - when we are wanting to take responsibility for our own safety and security. By travelling somewhere am I knowingly putting myself in harm’s way?
The answer, like most things in life, is complicated.
Yes, it is safe.
And no, it’s not.
As I explain in one of the first chapters of Staying Safe on Your Gap Year, safety and security are concepts and not products and these move and change. Our safety and security are dependent on a huge number of varying factors and only half of them are external to us. Let me explain.
When I travel to a foreign city, say Nairobi, I am entering a new environment in which new and different threats are present. At home, I also deal with threats. I mitigate, or prevent, them so readily though that I often forget I’m doing it. At home, I could scald myself while washing the dishes so temper the hot water with cold. I could have a car accident so I drive defensively and wear a seat belt. I could have my bag stolen so I never leave it on the back of a chair at a restaurant. In Nairobi, there are different threats and so I act to mitigate those. In the drive from the airport to the city I keep my windows rolled up to prevent robbery and hi-jacking. I carry my bag across my body to prevent a snatch-and-grab robbery. In both places, I take precautions to prevent becoming a victim of crime or accident. This is how I deal with threats which are external to myself.
Now, the other half of the story is my vulnerability to these threats and this is hugely influenced by who I am and my own actions. In Nairobi, there are areas which are safe for me (a white, female foreigner) to be and there are others which are not. My being a woman could make me more vulnerable to certain crimes. Who I am, where I choose to go, and what I choose to do is the other half of the safety story. I need to constantly be thinking about reducing my vulnerability at the same time as I’m acting to prevent threats from happening to me.
Take those two things together and you’re well on your way to being ‘safe’ – no matter where in the world you are.
I’m sure at this point you’re thinking…. wait a minute! Surely there are some places which are ‘less safe’ than others. Absolutely! When you compare Kabul in Afghanistan to London in the UK then you can say unequivocally that London is safer. There are fewer threats and people must be aware of fewer of their vulnerabilities. But, you have to have a comparative to do that. ‘Safer than what?’ is the question. If you compare Kandahar, Afghanistan to Kabul, Afghanistan well then suddenly Kabul is a citadel of safety. This is an extreme example, of course, to highlight a point. Safety is not a fixed point. We can’t point at a map and say with any certainty that someone will be ‘safe’ there. Or, that it is a ‘safe’ place. Is Los Angeles safer than New York? Well, we’d have to frame what we’re basing our comparison on – intentional homicide rates? Petty crime rates? Whether we know someone who’s been robbed in each? Is a small village in Devon safer than London? Again, what are we comparing? Crime? Are we basing our answer on per capita or just straight numbers annually?
Sadly, this is not what we want to hear. This is not the ideal news for the parent of a gap year student who is about to head off to a handful of countries they’ve barely even heard of. So, how do we deal with this inherent insecurity of the world and the truth that nowhere we ever go is truly and fully ‘safe’?
The best offense, they say, is a good defense. Students who are travelling need to take responsibility for their own safety and security before they even leave home. They can do this by research and preparation. Look at the Foreign Office (UK) travel advice. Go to the NHS’ Fit for Travel page. If you want a step-by-step guide then pick up Staying Safe in Your Gap Year where I walk you through a lot of personal security concepts as well as how to prevent and respond to threats. It could be that this research causes you to say, ‘it’s not the right time for me to visit such-and-such a place’. Or, it could be that your research reassures you that the threats in a place can be managed and mitigated successfully.
Our safety is critically important and how we take responsibility for it and understand the immediate world around us will go a long way to ensuring our safety. It will help us be as safe as possible no matter where we are.