Steps to Navigate Civil Unrest

Civil unrest is one of the most serious security threats that international travelers may face. Because such situations can be both unpredictable and potentially life threatening, travelers should take three primary steps before and during their journeys. These three components include the development of a comprehensive security plan, consistent monitoring of in-country conditions, and strict adherence to established security protocols. As was recently seen in the 2009 outbreak of civil unrest in the west African country of Guinea, the importance of adequate planning and monitoring cannot be overstated.

Research and planning are key to any sound security policy. Travelers to high-risk destinations must have a clear picture of the security conditions they might face on the ground. For instance, up-to-date assessments on security and medical conditions, such as those that can be provided assistance companies, are invaluable tools at this phase. Travelers should also ensure that medical, travel and life insurance policies are in effect and applicable to their destinations. Such pre-travel planning must also take into account possible worst-case scenarios and establish security responses for various levels of crisis. These measures could prove to be life-saving strategies, but unfortunately, the full benefits of such thorough preparations only become apparent in the direst of circumstances.

Monitoring developments in areas where civil unrest risks are high is a critical component in any well-developed security plan. Keeping abreast of security related developments and consistent communication is necessary for navigating crisis situations. In late 2009, as conditions in Guinea gave rise to civil unrest, assistance companies increased warning levels and began daily communications with clients to alert them of the rapidly changing situation. Crucial notifications were delivered to clients through frequent Evacuation Alerts, the daily Hot Spots newsletter and through the World Watch® security portal. By the time foreign governments began issuing their own evacuation orders, many clients were well aware of the situation and had already taken steps to mitigate threats. For instance, consistent monitoring and early communication allowed some clients to position travelers in areas outside of the “hot zone” in the capital, Conakry, prior to any serious developments. As conditions deteriorated in the country, it soon became apparent to assistance companies that those organizations who had not established such security protocols were at a distinct disadvantage. Travelers who consistently maintained communications and were on top of the latest developments and ultimately proved to be much better prepared to deal with the crisis.

During times of crisis, deviation from set security plans should be minimized. Instances of civil unrest are highly stressful events. It is therefore important to keep in mind that security protocols and evacuation plans were originally set up when conditions allowed for clear thinking and analysis. For this reason, those measures are in many cases much more reliable, especially in high-stress and chaotic environments. As civil unrest escalated in Guinea, many clients were forced to rely on previously established criteria. Travelers and organizations who consistently upheld security protocols were better prepared and more organized throughout the Guinea situation. Assistance companies were also able to evacuate such individuals and groups in an orderly fashion, according to previously established plans. In contrast, travelers and companies which lacked a well-established contingency plan faced significant security threats, including problems with locating personnel and various logistical issues in evacuating them. These problems only highlight the advantage of strictly maintaining a thorough security plan during such crisis scenarios as civil unrest.

Although civil unrest is by nature unpredictable and fluid, planning and execution of strict security measures can mean the difference between life and death. Pre-travel planning, monitoring and communication -- as well as strict adherence to pre-established security plans -- are ultimately the most significant tools that travelers can use to ensure that their trips to high-risk destinations are as safe and secure as possible.


Gabriella Cserei
North/West Africa regional intelligence analyst at the security offices of MEDEX Global Solutions.