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Staying Safe on Your Mission Trip

Not long after starting a career in corporate security, I found myself on a business trip to a Far Eastern country—with little preparation and even less knowledge about the country. Arriving on a weekend, I took advantage of the beautiful weather and enchanting scenery by doing a little exploring.

My hotel sat on the beach of the South China Sea. At the hotel’s property line, on either side of the beach, were acres of lush jungle. Every bit the American tourist, I meandered down a path from the beach, taking in the strange sounds, smells, and sights. I was thrilled to see monkeys gleefully jumping from tree to tree—and for a New Jerseyan who’d never seen monkeys outside of a cage, that was an amazing experience!

On Monday, I told the factory manager about my discovery of “free monkeys.” “You didn’t go into the jungle, did you?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. “Where do you think I saw the monkeys?” Looking at me as a kindergarten teacher looks at a child, he exclaimed, “But this is June!” As a trained investigator, not much gets by me; I already knew what month it was. Then he explained that June is cobra season. Evidently, folks don’t even go into their backyards in June because of the cobras—and this naïve American traipsed around the jungle like he’s in the New York City Easter parade! (Note to self: Stay out of the jungle in June!)

Know the Rules of the Game

Almost immediately I knew what I’d done wrong: I failed to adapt my behavior to new surroundings. Without knowing the “rules of the game,” I started playing just the same. I also remembered a lesson I learned as an FBI Special Agent reporting for duty in New York City. My supervisor asked what New Yorkers call people who get out of taxis saying, “Gee, what tall buildings!” “Tourists?”” I answered. “No,” he said. “We call them victims.”

The most frequent travelers to war zones are business travelers. Having their minds on business, they often pay little attention to potential threats. They think in terms of business first and feel they have no time to be robbed or kidnapped. What they often learn the hard way is that they are “attacks waiting to happen.” Criminals assume four things about business travelers. First, you have money. Second, you likely don’t speak the language or know how to call the police. Third, you have no intention of staying long enough to testify against them in court if they’re caught. And fourth, you are worth a nice ransom to your organization. Can you imagine a more inviting target? Now, replace the term business traveler with short-term missionary.

There are similarities in the security risks faced by business travelers and by those embarking on short-term mission trips, but practicing some basic security behaviors can make your trip more productive and safe.

Situational Awareness

Throughout your short-term mission outreach, whether the country you travel to is one you consider safe or one of the world’s more dangerous locales, practice situational awareness.

Situational awareness is simply being alert to your surroundings—having a heightened awareness of what is happening around you—and formulating a plan should you find yourself confronted with a threat. Research shows that to determine their personal risk of being caught or injured, criminals evaluate potential victims. Much like a predator in the wild attacks the prey that has strayed from the safety of the flock, or that is inattentive to possible danger, or that appears weakest, human predators will evaluate you as a potential victim.

Present yourself as a “tough target” by:

  • Maintaining focused attention on your surroundings
  • Noting potential “safe havens” such as police or fire stations, open stores, or restaurants.
  • Being alert to people who appear to be following or paying undue attention to you.
  • Listening to your inner survival signals such as fear, apprehension, or suspicion.

As you pay attention to your surroundings, mentally form a plan of action. A simple “If he does that, I’ll do this” will help you react faster should the worst happen. If you’re approached by a suspicious person, or sense a person or vehicle following you, cross the street or change direction. This is not paranoia, but good judgment in an unfamiliar environment.

Security Behaviors

Successfully practicing situational awareness must be coupled with sound security behaviors. Unlike my experience in the Far East, you should do some pre-trip research into crime risks and the geopolitical climate. Also, read any travel advisories about countries you intend to visit, and ask your host, “What should I be careful not to do?”

No matter where your mission trip takes you, you’ll find yourself in public places at least some of the time—airports, shopping markets, or other populated areas. Displaying a discreet but confident demeanor helps diminish the possibility of being seen as a potential victim. There is truth in the adage “safety in numbers,” and whenever possible you should travel in groups of three or four. Criminals are less likely to attack a group than a person walking alone.

Taking responsibility for your own security by practicing some general security guidelines will help you return home safely.

  • If you stand on a street corner to read a map, you’ve just told every potential attacker that you wouldn’t know where to run for help. It’s better to study a map or plan your route in your room or another private place to avoid sending the wrong message to potential criminals.
  • Counting or displaying money in public makes criminals salivate, and you wouldn’t even do that in New York City!
  • If you must use an ATM, find one inside a bank or other secure location and be particularly attentive to anyone watching you. Even if you don’t consider yourself rich in worldly goods, you must understand that to most of the world you’re on a par with Bill Gates. That “cheap” watch you wear is worth a month’s wages in some countries.

Short-term missionaries should also be attentive to how they may be viewed as Americans in foreign lands. For all of your noble intentions to help others, your American citizenship, in a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment, could bring unwanted attention from those who consider your country an oppressor or worse.

  • Show your passport only when necessary (for example, to immigration authorities).
  • Memorize your passport number, keep copies of the photo page separate from your passport, and keep it hidden the rest of the time.
  • Be cautious about wearing clothing displaying the American flag, U.S. sports teams, or in some countries, religious symbols.
  • Leave your expensive jewelry at home.
  • Never leave your baggage unattended.
  • In general, maintain a low profile, avoiding visits to remote or isolated areas of cities and locations known for high crime.
  • If you drive, keep your car doors locked and windows up.
  • If you stay in a hotel, leave the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door while you’re out.

Information is like gold to criminals and terrorists. It can be used to plan an attack on you or used against you if you’re held hostage. You should:

  • Avoid providing more information about yourself than necessary to anyone
  • Refrain from providing itinerary details, even to people you feel you can trust
  • Vary travel routes to and from home, shopping, and other venues to prevent anyone from planning where and when to attack you—it makes you a tougher target.

Traveling overseas, whether on a business or a short-term mission trip, is not necessarily more or less dangerous than visiting any large U.S. city. The following tendencies can have disastrous results: focusing your attention solely on the mission at hand while ignoring potential threats, behaving as if you were “home” in familiar surroundings, forgetting to practice simple security precautions, and not recognizing how potential predators may view you. Staying alert, attentive, and security conscious will help bring you home safely.

See also resources concerning travel and safety, Mission Travel Essentials.

This article was first published in Mission Maker Magazine 2008. Used with permission.Walter N. Clements, M.A., CPP, is the Associate Director of Global Security for a Fortune 100 multi-national company. A Board Certified Protection Professional and former FBI Special Agent, he specializes in teaching crisis management, hostage survival and negotiation tactics, and counter-surveillance detection and evasion.

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