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Volume 2, Number 2, Fall - Winter 2001/2002

Understanding Terrorism’s Impact on Study-Abroad Programs

By Malcolm Nance and Lisa Hughes
Real World Rescue – High Risk Travel Security Consultants

September 11, 2001. One almost doesn’t need to say more. On that date, America was struck and stunned by an act of hyper-terrorism: a large-scale attack that went beyond the “symbolic” nature of many previous acts of terrorism and entered the realm of mass destruction and mass murder.

Due to the sheer horror of the attacks and their tragic aftermath, the threat of terrorism is now perceived more vividly by Americans than ever before. Such a pressing threat naturally prompts evaluations of security at all levels. While the most traumatic type of attack–one carried out on American soil–has already happened, this does not necessarily make the rest of the world seem any safer to us. Administrators at universities who coordinate study-abroad programs are wise to ask questions about the safety of their students overseas. How real are terrorist threats abroad? Specifically, how can we send students abroad without exposing them to unacceptable levels of risk?

Two main points should be made here: First, while it is painfully clear that no person–student or otherwise–can be given absolute guarantees of immunity from terrorist violence, administrations can and should conduct due diligence to mitigate those risks when students travel overseas. Second, the safety of students abroad is more likely to be threatened by crimes other than terrorism, and steps can also be taken to reduce these risks–particularly by encouraging greater awareness and diligence on the part of students. [See Top Ten list]

Managing Programs Abroad in Turbulent Times

Although no one wants security concerns to overshadow the value and excitement of time spent abroad, it must be a fundamental consideration at the planning stages of any program sponsoring students and staff overseas. Any compromises made when it comes to the safe and secure return of students from a foreign country are unacceptable. For the sake of the students–as well as the long-term health of such programs, which could face termination if a tragic event were to occur–institutional goals and financial considerations may have to take a back seat to safety considerations.

The following guidelines suggest ways in which university administrators can make study-abroad programs as safe as possible.

Security belongs at the foundation of a program

To add security considerations to an existing program is not always easy, but it can be done with the right approach. Students–and most travelers–are seeking to explore and interact with their environments, and may be resistant to perceived limitations on that experience. A well-grounded, common-sense approach to overseas security can bridge the gap.

For instance, the US Peace Corps has a mission that might seem anathema to security considerations: close-quarters integration of volunteers into their host communities, the need and desire for social acceptance and cooperation, and a desire not to appear defensive or distrustful. Some Peace Corps volunteers initially expressed an aversion to any type of security program. However, out of growing necessity, the Peace Corps did successfully establish such a program, building safe practices into its operations without changing the organization’s goals. The program begins with detailed briefings on the security history of host countries before volunteers depart, and incorporates ongoing personal safety training into their in-country work. The training stresses the responsibility volunteers have over their own choices and behavior, and delivers an empowering message: be aware of your environment, be informed of the risks, and make wise choices. Volunteers begin their service with an “I won’t let it happen to me” attitude–not a resentment of limitations placed upon them.

Although small programs may not have the resources of a large organization such as the Peace Corps, the model is valid. With safety and security standards built into the structure of a program, executing them will become as automatic as planning the logistics of travel itself.

Designate a security manager or managers

In the case of study-abroad programs, administrators are already wearing many hats, and appointing someone to deal with security full-time may be unrealistic. However, to ensure that this aspect of the program doesn’t fall through the cracks, one person should be specifically designated as a security manager. Normally the manager will collect relevant information on the security status in host countries or cities and coordinate seminars students can attend prior to leaving the U.S. If a critical incident occurs, there will be one person who can answer questions and ally fears.

Invest in security evaluations of host countries

Many security consulting companies offer written evaluations of the level of “political risk” and crime in countries around the world, and these can serve as a valuable tool for tracking activity that isn’t reported in the mainstream press. The U.S. State Department also issues annual country reports travel advisories, although in some cases, political concerns color these reports and they can be too severe or too lenient. It’s important to study a country’s history of violent conflict or crime based on objective reports, since reality sometimes diverges from perception. For instance, Paris, London and Madrid have witnessed more terrorist attacks than many cities in the Middle East; however, statistically they may still be safer for an individual than crime-ridden cities such as Sao Paolo. Administrators should get the facts and then respond accordingly in their programming.

If the program can afford it, take a security specialist for an assessment of locations where students will spend the most time. From a general safety perspective, for instance, hotels that look great in brochures may be firetraps or, as occurred in one case, located in a brothel. Seemingly idyllic landscapes may be littered with landmines from a post-civil war environment.

Learn from institutions that have suffered critical incidents in the past Sadly, some organizations deem it necessary to cover up incidents in which their members have experienced crisis overseas, out of concern for publicity. This creates further damage by keeping others in the dark as to how such incidents can be prevented in the future. Administrators should seek out information on past incidents of crime and terrorism–or even close calls–with the aim of studying responses and planning their own. If a university program learns valuable lessons the hard way, it does other students a service by sharing what it has learned. Managing risk means being honest and seeing security with open eyes.

Gain advice from a security professional

If administrators decide to consult professionals in their security planning, what should they look for? Unfortunately, some in the security business may express a low opinion of study-abroad programs and advise against them completely. Others may deliver watered-down advice along the lines of “Be careful, kids.” The size of a security consulting firm does not necessarily correlate with its ability to give you quality information; many large overseas risk companies offer briefings that may be too impersonal and cookie-cutter.

On the other hand, travelers who have visited a country and, fortunately, had no negative experiences aren’t necessarily a reliable source of security information. Many people travel throughout the developing world and don’t see riots, crime or civil unrest–but these dangers develop at a later time, or exist in a different region. Their overly sunny perspectives can foster a false and potentially dangerous sense of safety. The bottom line: administrators should interview prospective consultants or trainers on their views and select someone who they find credible, and whose philosophy matches their institution’s.

Consider risk and evacuation insurance

Insurance is possibly the most expensive part of a security program, but one that institutions should consider. A university should ideally have enough insurance to evacuate all students from a country in crisis, particularly in case of medical emergency. Insurance can include coverage for both emergency assistance services, evacuation or repatriation assistance, medical and health care services, and repatriation coverage. Some companies offering such policies includeUniversal Travel Protection,International SOS,Medex Assistance,TravelMed Assistance Group, andHTH Worldwide(there is limited insurance coverage through the inexpensive ($22) International Student ID Card (ISIC)Travel Insurance, however, many in the study abroad field provide, require, or recommend additional coverage. It is important to review any travel assistance or insurance companies priot to using them, to make sure that they provide effective support services for your students and your programs. Insurance coverage, specifically for kidnapping and terrorism are also available. Never be at a loss for money, personnel resources or planning to remove all students in case of a high-risk situation.

Avoid the pitfall of “More Remote, More Rewarding”

Placing programs in the most remote reaches of a developed or less-developed country may truly provide an adventure. However, simple news or emergency requests for illness, injury or evacuation may literally take days or weeks to reach reliable communication channels. Students can enjoy rewarding experiences well within areas that provide a comprehensive infrastructure which include both health and safety services. If a choice is made to support a program in a place where support services for health and safety are not well provided for, it is critical that the institution find ways to provide for medical, counseling, and emergency evacuation support services, to make up for these critical components of a well-run program." In case of emergency, an institution sending students to a less-developed region should have an "office" or meeting point in a town with good transportation and communications.

Involve families

Families require, and deserve, high levels of assurance about the safety of their children. A security program for students sent abroad should be thoroughly explained to families prior to departure, and communication channels established. Simple methods of assuaging any fears might include setting up a website for the program, sending parents weekly updates, and gauging families’ concerns with quick, on-line surveys. Should a major critical incident occur, program directors should follow the example airlines have developed: establish a crisis team and make personal contact with every family involved; an ombudsman might even be useful. When the incident is over, follow-up meetings on security procedures should be brought out into public for discussion.

Develop Security Plans and Nurture Student Awareness

Education abroad does not require armed guards or canceling trips out of the fear of what might happen, but administrators who seek to enrich their students’ lives with overseas learning do need to be proactive when it comes to security planning. Developing constructive policies, and nurturing students’ awareness of what they can do improve their own safety while overseas, will produce more responsible travelers and citizens.

Malcolm Nance, Real World Rescue (RWR) Director of Special Operations, has 20 years of experience in high-risk travel throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa as a member of the US military intelligence community. As an anti- and counter-terrorism specialist and former survival instructor for the Department of Defense, he has trained thousands of individuals on surviving critical incidents overseas. Lisa Hughes is a writer, instructor, and political risk analyst for RWR; she has traveled in Europe, Africa and South America.

Real World Rescue High-Risk Travel Security Consultants specializes in international travel security and risk mitigation for both civilian travelers and government personnel working overseas. RWR has provided skills and awareness training and security assessments to journalists, the US Peace Corps, the FBI, the Department of Defense and Department of State. RWR also provides security information to media outlets such as the BBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Travel Channel, Conde Nast Traveler, Business Traveler, Outside, Men's Health, and National Geographic Adventure.