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Many people I have come across are afraid to venture a long way outside their home country, mostly because they fear for their safety in other nations. Other have crossed entire continents (most likely Africa) or countries off their travel bucket list because of the perception that they are likely to become a victim while traipsing through one of those nations.  Organizations like the US State Department and most mass media do nothing to help dispel these overblown fears; the second a whiff of trouble comes out of any corner of a country, the US almost automatically issues travel advisories, as well it probably should.

The first time I experienced these perceptions with a country I knew well was when the economic crisis erupted in Greece.  I lived in Greece until I was nine years old, and still spend 2-3 months there every year, in addition to keeping in touch throughout the year with many friends and family members from Athens.

After the crisis broke, and the US media showed nonstop images of rioters with Molotov cocktails and fires plaguing the streets of Athens, many of my friends in the US asked me if I still intended to go in the summer, due to safety concerns.  People I met even asked me how I wasn’t scared to go to a country with a ‘civil war’ situation going on.  My response was usually a disbelieving stare and a sigh.  This isn’t to say the crisis itself was overblown – the Greek people were suffering financially and my friends and family back home were having a tough time finding well-paying jobs.  But the country had hardly devolved into anarchy.  It was an economic recession; worse than, but similar to, the one the US was going through.  The media had chosen to show images only from the 3-block radius of central Athens in which protests always take place, making it seem as though anyone disembarking at Greece’s international airport would have to pick up an AK-47 before heading to the Acropolis.

I did go to Greece that summer, and I managed to do so without having to sign up for the revolution upon entry.  I had a great time in Athens, visited a couple of the islands, and saw no riots or protests (because every Greek already knows the specific areas in Athens where protests may occur, and tends to avoid them – unless they’re taking part, of course).  All in all, it was a relaxing, wonderful vacation.

Greece Summer 2010

Greece, Summer 2010 – Coldly smiling as the revolution rages on in the background

It did get me thinking, though – was my experience in Greece unique?  Or did other expats heading back to their ‘dangerous’ mother countries find much of the same; namely overblown fear-mongering by the US government and media with no basis in reality?  I spoke to a friend who often visited her hometown back in Mexico, and she told me that although a couple of border towns had in fact become unapproachably dangerous, most of Mexico, including the area of her home state, was pretty much as it always had been.  So it seemed that the situation was not confined to Greece.

In order to get the true facts regarding crime in other countries, I have decided to list the actual violent crime statistics for ‘risky’ countries, and then bring them closer to home by listing US cities with similar, if not identical, crime rates (*statistics for US cities available here [2011]).  Below, I have compiled a list of countries considered ‘unsafe’ by US standards – picked from the US State Department’s Travel Warning List – excluding certain countries that are considered war zones (ex: Afghanistan) because the homicide rate there does not reflect the countrywide violence.  I have listed the countries’ homicide rates (compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) because they are widely considered the most accurate and representative violent crime statistic, as different countries have different definitions for ‘general’ violent crime and thus, unreliable statistics.

CountryHomicide Rate (Per 100,000)Same Crime Rate As:
Honduras91.6Atlanta, GA
El Salvador70.2Birmingham, AL
Venezuela45.1Santa Clara, CA
Colombia31.4Baltimore, MD
Central African Republic29.3Oakland, CA
Sudan24.2Stockton, CA
Mexico23.7Kansas City, MO
Democratic Republic of the Congo21.7Philadelphia, PA
Kenya20.1Memphis, TN
Eritrea17.8Buffalo, NY
Chad15.8Milwaukee, WI
North Korea15.2Cincinnati, OH
Mauritania14.7Oklahoma City, OK
Nigeria12.2Dallas, TX
Mali8Phoenix, AZ
Pakistan7.8Los Angeles, CA
Haiti6.9Long Beach, CA
Philippines5.4Anchorage, AK
Thailand4.8Virginia Beach, VA
Yemen4.2Colorado Springs, CO
Burundi4.1Lexington, KY
Niger3.8Austin, TX
Iran3Santa Ana, CA
Libya2.9Portland, OR
Lebanon2.2Mesa, AZ
Somalia1.5Henderson, NV
Egypt1.2Lincoln, NE
Saudi Arabia1Lincoln, NE
Algeria0.6Plano, TX

There probably should have been some unexpected surprises in that table already.  But let’s have a further look at the data.  For example, what does a homicide rate of 31.4 really mean?  Well, it means that placing all other factors aside, if you live in Colombia for a full year there’s a 0.03% of becoming a victim of violent crime, but how can that statistic be better understood?  Let’s put it this way – 0.03% is the probability that you will be drafted by the NBA if you’ve ever played high school basketball.  So chances are pretty damn slim.  And that’s the fourth most dangerous country on the list!  Moving further down the list, here are some situations that are equally as probable as being a victim of violence in these ‘dangerous’ countries: the likelihood of meeting a violent end in Iran is the same as the likelihood of your television sending you to the ER, while in Algeria, murder is as probable as death by asteroid strike.  Not to mention that by using basic safety precautions, staying away from the worst urban neighborhoods at night, and refraining from involvement in organized crime (which you really should be doing anyway), these already-low probabilities fall even lower.

All this is not to say that you should run around drunk and alone in your new city at night, while flashing your Platinum American Express card.  It’s just a look behind the general fear-mongering into the real situation in many of the countries considered ‘off-limits’, a way to show that this whole wide world is more accessible and more familiar than many people think, a way to convince people who have written so many countries off as ‘dangerous’ and ‘risky’ that perhaps they should take a second look at their ‘no-go’ zones.  You should always be cautious, but there’s no need to go overboard.

AK-47 Assault Rifle

So this is probably unnecessary gear for your next travels.

Always exercise certain precautions when traveling, and follow common-sense guidelines like these in order to stay safe:

  • Avoid walking alone at night through an area you don’t know much about.
  • Don’t carry too many valuables with you, and if you do, hide them well.
  • Do some preliminary research on the ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ areas of your destination before you go, so you know if you are wandering into a sketchy neighborhood.
  • Avoid getting drunk or high, especially if you are alone without anyone you trust near you.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings – don’t walk down unfamiliar streets with your headphones glued to your ears.
  • Top Tip: ALWAYS get information from locals about how to stay safe! These people have been born and raised in your destination, and know its ins and outs better than anyone else.  Talk to local cab drivers, shop owners, bartenders, host families (staying with a host family gives you the best source of information), or communicate with locals before you travel through websites such as CouchSurfing, in order to get the best advice on your destination.

There are many other ways to stay safe of course, which will be covered in a future post, but my point today is that travel, in the vast majority of places, doesn’t need to be any scarier than venturing around your own city.  Get informed and use common sense – don’t automatically set countries ‘off-limits’, and don’t always believe the hype.

 

UPDATE: If you want to share this article on travel safety, I have included a PIN below based on updated statistics as of October 2016. Pin away!

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