Safety in an Era of Terrorism

Safety is an important subject right now. Particularly in education abroad circles where our primary purpose is to send students far away from home and where we are keenly aware of the responsibility we bear by doing so. There is plenty of encouragement to keep living life in regular ways, which, for us, means to keep traveling and to continue sending students abroad. But there is also fear and anxiety.

The French government has just published safety instructions in the event of a terror attack:  instructions to “escape, hide, alert.” Let’s hope no-one will need to use them. Sadly, though, the reality seems to be that we are now in a time when danger is unpredictable, when the violence seems more horrible than in the past, and when the threats appear to be all around us.

So, is it wise to continue traveling abroad? Are we putting our students at greater risk than if they stay home?

In one sense, it’s easy to scoff at that question. The chart below, and many other available statistics, demonstrate that we and our students are actually at greater risk by staying at home, by driving around on American freeways, and by walking outside in a thunderstorm.  And yet, we must answer the questions seriously.

For one, those of us working with faculty-led programs are sending students abroad in groups. It’s one thing to travel alone, but a group of 20 US students will stand out wherever they are. The standard advice we give to students abroad to blend in, act like locals, move around quietly–is practically impossible when traveling in a big group. In addition, it’s not only, and not even particularly, foreigners who are targets.

The new US Department of State Worldwide Travel Alert doesn’t seem particularly helpful. In fact, it tells Americans there are “possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats.” How possible is possible? It advises us to “exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places.  Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events.” If we followed that advice, we would need to consider keeping our students out of all public transportation and away from most major monuments and museums in big cities. In fact, we could interpret the advice to mean avoiding major cities abroad all together. Will that keep us and our students safer? And we will be looking over our shoulders almost everywhere we go.

And, yet again, the question arises of whether program providers, faculty leaders, and education abroad professionals should be following the State Department advice. Can we provide more safety and security in a private coach instead of a subway car? Is a small museum safer than a big museum? Are rural areas more secure than capitol cities? Unfortunately, no alternate locations can provide the safety we wish for. And that seems to be our new reality.

How are you responding to questions about student safety and security abroad?


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