When You’re Not in Kansas Anymore 

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Written by Alejandro Alba

2017: a year that has propelled us to re-examine not only U.S. political relations vis-à-vis other countries but also our safety precautions before traveling abroad. Consider some of the most recent headlines: Iranian authorities pass a 10-year prison sentence of U.S. student Xiyue Wang for espionage; Chinese authorities’ detention and release of Guthrie McLean (University of Montana) for a public altercation; and the North Korean arrest of Otto Warmbier for attempting to steal propaganda, leading to his death. In all these cases, students and foreign affairs practitioners identified with a desire to immerse themselves abroad.

These fates are a chilling reminder of the risks associated with traveling abroad. It goes without saying, upon self-reflection as a nation, U.S. students and civilians need to exercise much greater caution when deciding to explore territories that do not quite exalt red, white, and blue.

Some of us shrug off this notion. Isn’t going abroad supposed to be exciting, easy-going and risk-free? Like my fellow globetrotters, I remember the excitement of studying and living across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The challenge of adapting to new cultures, scrumptious foods rivaling the cost of McDonald’s, and elation of sharing selfies from scenic spots.

The joy can be so overwhelming that we forget we are not in Kansas anymore. Protesting political figures in Tiananmen Square (China), driving a vehicle as a woman in Saudi Arabia, or enjoying marijuana in Indonesia may seem innocent. However, such habits in the homeland can receive backlash in foreign lands: imprisonment, hard labor, and even death. Studying and traveling abroad is a privilege. Just as unlawful behavior is not tolerated within our borders, we are not invulnerable as guests in a foreign household.

According to the U.S. State Department, nearly 2,500 of Americans are arrested abroad annually, a third of which relates to drug possession. Among the +300,000 U.S. students and +72 million tourists going abroad each year, these unlucky souls roughly comprise 0.0037%. The U.S. Department of Commerce  additionally notes that between 2002-2015, over 4,000 American deaths abroad relate to homicide and other serious accidents. These may not seem like noteworthy statistics. But, it’s greater than 0—a huge problem.

So, how can educators, government officials, and the public enhance our level of preparedness? How do we protect our friends, family, and ourselves from making regrettable mistakes outside our borders? Resources exist. The solution must be a multifaceted effort to expand public awareness.

At the academic level: let’s ensure all academic study abroad offices require a pre-travel brief informing students on political dangers, civil unrest, and social expectations in the countries they visit. Before studying abroad in China, my university’s info session taught me about less commonly discussed issues such as Tibetan autonomy protests in Beijing, sensitive conversation subjects, or law enforcement conflicts with Uighur minorities in the Xinjiang Province.

Within federal government: travel agencies, tech industry, and the State Department could work to widen national awareness of tools such as the Smart Traveler mobile application, based on State’s Alerts and Warnings webpage.

This month Congress’ expected 5-year ban on civilian travel to North Korea will be voted on. The rationale: protect U.S. lives and cut tourism revenue to a belligerent regime. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore that restricting U.S. private travel can also limit grassroots diplomacy. I am also concerned about what precedent the ban may set if lawmakers seek to apply travel restrictions to countries where political disagreements supersede individuals’ safety. If we truly prioritize U.S. traveler safety measured in deaths per capita, for example, we need to examine our foreign travel stance toward countries with the highest rates, such as Thailand and Mexico.

As a reminder, we need to empower ourselves by carefully researching the countries in which we intend to immerse ourselves. What behavior is acceptable; how does religion influence dress code; what substances are banned or grounds for arrest; and what areas are susceptible to criminal activity? Literature, the internet, and social media all offer extensive content. But, it’s our responsibility to research and determine where we can travel with minimal risk.

Every chance I have had to go abroad, precautions provided beforehand have helped me truly appreciate global travel for pleasure and learning, whether Morocco, China, or Honduras. Some regimes and rogue actors may seek to detain or harm us. Yet, we can protect ourselves from inadvertently breaking foreign law, placing ourselves in the middle of unrest or violence, and being incarcerated. This allows us to relish the experience as globetrotters and students of the world.

About the author: Alejandro Alba is a Public Affairs professional based in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of American University’s School of International Service and a Generation Study Abroad Ambassador sponsored by the Institute of International Education and New York Times in Education.

Photo by Rathish Gandhi via Unsplash.