Extra precautions are necessary for some destinations.
Not even military dictatorships, civil wars, and violations of human rights have stopped students from studying abroad. For instance, international diplomats have continuously criticized China's human rights abuses; nonetheless, the number of students studying in Chinese universities increased by over 11,000 between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 according to the Institute of International Education.
Human rights is one thing; civil strife is another. As the Arab Spring has demonstrated, widespread discontent can erupt in mere moments. Egypt only saw peaceful demonstrations whereas Tunisia, Libya, and Syria had and continue to experience blatant fighting between the common people and the government. The environments in these countries have been so tumultuous that study abroad students have been evacuated into more politically peaceful states, namely Israel and Jordan. However, slowly but surely, students are filtering back into these Middle Eastern states.
The Middle East is not the only place that has recently erupted in violence. Several boroughs in England (the traditional model of democracy and peace) experienced serious riots in summer 2011, whereas Russia saw protesters take to the streets after Vladimir Putin's recent re-election.
In short: you always need to be prepared for violent outbreaks in foreign countries. The question is, how do you prepare yourself for and deal with such a turn of events? Although the following tips do not cover the entirety of your precautions, they are important in maintaining your overall safety.
1. Know the right people
Knowing who and where to go in times of disorder will help you cope with any situation. If you're in a city, form some degree of familiarity with someone in a consulate or embassy. Of course, in times of crisis, embassies and consulates are popular havens for foreigners. That's why independent companies like International SOS team up with universities and program providers to offer travel insurance. These insurance companies will find doctors, assist students, and help parents communicate with their children in emergencies. Students can also buy emergency travel insurance independently. According to the New York Times, $160 would provide nearly $1 million worth of ISOS coverage for a four-month term in Japan.
2. Have resources available
Whenever society goes into widespread turmoil, certain basic resources (e.g. water, food, medication) become scarcer. Storing extra supplies will give you some breathing room--think of it like a travel abroad earthquake kit. Items like bottles of water, energy bars, bags of dried fruit and flashlights are durable and not impossible to obtain. Items like these aren't meant to sustain you for months on end, but they can provide nourishment and aid for several days until you can find more intensive support.
When chaos strikes, be prepared to react efficiently.
3. Try to blend in
Of course, fully blending in might be more difficult depending on your appearance and where you are traveling to, but that's not to say it's impossible. As a woman, managing your way through a foreign culture can be particularly challenging. Remaining as unobtrusive as possible and avoiding being targeted requires several steps. First, regardless if your studies are language-intensive or not, know a few words and phrases in the local dialect. Second, be sensible when in public. Don't wear a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt and gobs of jewelry. Doing so attracts attention and in the case that violence does erupt, attention is the last thing you want.
4. Read international news publications
According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, there's a positive correlation between freedom of the press and political stability, meaning you can't completely trust media sources in unstable nations. Read international news sources to get an outside perspective on what's going on in your country. Simply observing what's physically in front of you may not give you the whole story. Media sources including Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Foreign Policy are both reliable and thorough in keeping up-to-date on international news.
Taking all these precautions won't necessarily guarantee your safety. They will however give you a safety net in the case that anything does arise. Sure, politically corrupt governments and a dissatisfied populace erupting into an economic calamity sounds scary; but, the truth is, you can avoid disaster if you're smart in preparing yourself. If you're passionate about experiencing a certain culture, why not do it (even if Mom says otherwise!)
Countries worthy of extra precautions: According to the "Failed States Index," Foreign Policy and Fund For Peace's annual case study, the following countries were rated most poorly based on weak and corrupt governance, economic stagnation, and unregulated movement of refugees in and out of the country.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Central African Republic
The official Failed States Index Page offers more detailed information about the world's failed states.
We may not be saying that everyone should sign up for study abroad programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (there aren't many of those programs to begin with anyway). But, politically and civilly unstable areas are often the areas that have the greatest room for change and positive growth either through studying, volunteering, or service learning ventures. Helping to stimulate that growth will be much more effective if you've experienced the culture firsthand and witnessed history in the making.
One pair of hands might not do much, but if all parties rediscover that one of the best ways to build mutual trust, empathy, and progress is through exchanges, such as those facilitated through study abroad, of young people and citizen-to-citizen reciprocity, that same pair of hands can be the difference.
To function successfully abroad, universities -- and students and parents -- have to accept that uncertainty is the norm.
Photo credits: Painted Tapes, dimios_