European Perspective on US Department of State Travel Alert

Back in April, after the bombings in Brussels, the US Department of State issued a Travel Alert for Europe. It seemed to make sense at the time when so many of us were shaken by two terrorist attacks in Europe within months of each other. However, just last week, the State Department issued another Europe Travel Alert. But this time their reasoning is that it’s the beginning of summer.

Of course we must be vigilant as we travel and send students abroad. But, it’s also important to get perspectives from our colleagues on the ground in Europe. The article below (from the European Tour Operator Association) expresses skepticism about the need for another Travel Alert and urges us to look at the data and compare rates of violence, particularly homicide rates, in European countries vs. in the United States. I find this helpful in thinking about how to discuss safety abroad with faculty and students. I hope you will, too.

 

Summer is Coming In – ETOA Reaction to State Department’s Europe Travel Alert
2 June 2016

Much coverage has been given to the US State Department’s issuing of a travel alert for Europe on May 31st.

In it they point out that Europe hosts “major events”, has “tourist sites”, sustains “restaurants”, has “commercial centers” and that there is also transportation. In particular, they note that two large events are occurring (the European Football Championship in France and the World Youth Day in Poland); and that both these events will cause disruption, some of which will be security related.

“The large number of tourists visiting Europe in the summer months” they caution “will present greater targets for terrorists planning attacks in public locations, especially at large events.”

John Kirby of the State Department explained “We took the opportunity, because it’s the beginning of summer, to make our concerns known.”

“I’m not aware of any specific, credible terrorist event around these events or in any particular place in Europe. This was issued … based on an accumulation of information,” he said.

There are several things to note about this release. Firstly, that it is an “Alert”, not a “Warning”. The latter are recommendations not to travel: what we have here is a general airing of unfocussed concern.

Secondly it is effectively a re-issue of the alert that was issued on March 31st after the Brussels attacks. Its recommendations (“Exercise vigilance..avoid crowded places…stay in touch with your family etc”) are the same.

There is no change in status: Europe was the subject of a Travel Alert last month.

Thirdly it recognises that countermeasures are in place, albeit with an alarmist twist: “European authorities continue to take steps to assure public safety and disrupt terrorist plots”.

“What is missing here is any recognition of comparative safety,” said Tom Jenkins of ETOA. “Eighteen of the top twenty safest countries in the OECD list are European1. The homicide rate in Germany is 0.5, France is 0.6 and the UK is 0.2; in the United States it stands at 5.2. Even if the State Department were to switch its gaze from violent death to traffic accidents, it would see that the US is behind on that score too . Europe is manifestly the safest region on earth.”

“It is always puzzling as to the purpose of these announcements. Such assertions would normally require a strong imagination. The declaration that high season tourists “present greater targets for terrorists” is seems purposefully irksome. This identifies a victim group, on the basis of no specific or credible information. Among the 500 million people who live in Europe, it is the tourists who have been picked out as being subjects of terrorism “because it’s the beginning of summer”.

“It has long been recognised that terrorism is a message system, and how we work to counter the mental threat of terrorism is a vital part of the counter-terrorism strategy. The announcements from the State Department seem to be doing the terrorists work for them. ”

1Homicides per 100,000 population. Source OECD: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=BLI
2OECD: Road Safety Annual Report 2015

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