Please note – the views in the following feature are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Safe Travels Magazine. Before travel, we recommend that you always do your own research, read travel advisories and buy appropriate travel insurance.

In the fourth of our ‘Is it safe to …?’ series, we asked a range of experts if it is safe to go to the Philippines.

Following the election of President Duterte in June, the Philippines has seen a significant spike in the extrajudicial killing of criminals, especially those accused of drug related crimes (here and here – articles are several months old, death toll has risen further since then). Just before he was elected, President Duterte offered a reward to people who kill drug dealers – in response gang lords put a £300,000 bounty on his head.

President Duterte has frequently been in the headlines as a result of his colourful language – he vowed to eat militants, called President Obama a ‘son of a whore‘ and told him to go to hell, insulted the US Ambassador, and threatened to quite the UN in a ‘profanity-laced tirade’. News emerged today that President Duterte has promised God he will quit swearing. (Well worth clicking through to read the full article.)

Recently the President signaled a change, if not major break, in the relationship with the USA. He has called for the recent major military training exercise between the two countries to be the last (here and here), and said special forces troops in the south should leave due to the kidnapping risk. In the last week, several police officers have been suspended after they reportedly ran over demonstrators gathered outside the US Embassy in Manila. The crowd was protesting US military presence in the country.

Added to this mix are the frequent abductions by Abu Sayyaf and various criminal groups. Abu Sayyaf is believed to have been responsible for many of the recent abductions of sailors, as well as a couple of high profile hostage killings.

In light of this, we asked several experts what risks visitors might face and what they can do to mitigate those risks – essential reading if you are heading in that direction!

Government travel advice

Links to travel advice on visiting the Philippines from the following governments –

Please note that the travel advice varies – it is worth reading them all and reaching your own conclusion.

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allan-associates

Gavin Greenwood, Director at Allan & Associates

Email: ggreenwood@allan-assoc.com
Website: www.allan-assoc.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/A2Globalrisk

Gavin Greenwood, Director of Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, has lived and worked in Southeast and East Asia for many years.  Allan & Associates, a security risk management company, provides a wide range of protective services from travel risk assessments to crisis management response.

How safe is it to visit the Philippines?

Allan & Associates assess the Philippines as an elevated-risk destination for business visitors due to the generalised threat of crime and civil unrest, a reduced but still potential threat from insurgency, the largely localised risk of terrorism and the high probability of seasonal destructive typhoons. However, some regions are at far greater risk than others, to the extent that we would advise no travel whatsoever to them.

These include areas of Mindanao, a large southern island and the seat of longstanding conflict between the mainly Muslim original inhabitants and Christian settlers from the northern regions of the Philippines. Woven into these separatist/ethnic/religious strands are criminal enterprises that now largely thrive off kidnap and ransom, much as their forbearers did from piracy. Southwestern Mindanao, notably the Sulu archipelago, for example, is the scene of intense fighting between the Philippine military and local criminal and radical groups.

A communist insurgency that began almost 50 years ago is currently in abeyance as the mainly rural guerrillas’ negotiators and the government discuss the terms of peace accord. Past experience with such efforts to end the conflict lead many observers to remain cautious over the likelihood of a binding agreement, underpinning our advice that the country’s remote rural areas should be assumed to remain as hazardous as they did before the talks began in August 2016.

Beyond the conflict zones of Mindanao, where classic insurgency tactics and matching military counter-insurgency operations are combined with criminality, terrorist attacks occur sporadically. The lack of intensity and coherence in such attacks leads some analysts, including our own, to the view that at least some are the actions of elements close to or within the state apparatus and are intended to alter perceptions or legislation or to undermine the authority of political leader or their opponents. Such acts are not intended to cause casualties and rarely do so. However, other attacks, often targeting shopping malls and transportation and intended to cause casualties, may have criminal origins or represent the actions of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists.

Petty crime in Manila and other urban and tourist centres is a constant, if generally low level, threat. Violent crime, including gun crime, is prevalent with foreign nationals occasionally targeted, usually due a business or personal dispute with their attacker. Civil unrest and street protests occur, with varying degrees of intensity, routinely in Manila and larger urban areas. They rarely pose a direct threat to foreign business visitors, although they can be disruptive.

What are the biggest risks?

The biggest risk, in terms of consequences, is abduction for ransom. While this is not a country-wide threat, events in 2015 demonstrated that kidnap gangs had extended their reach in regions previously considered generally secure. Three Western nationals and a Filipina were seized from a high-end resort near Davao City in southern Mindanao and taken hundreds of miles to Jolo in the Sulu Sea; two of the men were subsequently murdered in 2016 when no ransom was paid.

A significant, if largely undocumented, number of foreign nationals are murdered in the Philippines each year. Most are long term residents and they are usually killed for monetary gain or as the result of a dispute. Firearms are freely available for those who can afford them, but many of the deaths are caused by bladed weapons. Other foreigners, mainly from East Asia, are killed as result of their organised criminal links.

The government’s current ‘war on narcotics,’ which has led to more than 3,000 deaths among alleged drug dealers and petty criminals since late June 2016, has to date proved popular among many of the country’s poorer citizens and shows no sign of ending. However, there is a danger that the campaign’s growing number of extra-judicial killings has eroded the country’s already tenuous application of the rule of law and prepared the way for a mounting cycle of violence between the authorities  and at least some their presumed targets. Such an outcome would create an atmosphere of fear and increasingly high levels of violence that would impact on all levels to society – including foreign residents and visitors.

Very few foreign nationals have been killed or injured as the result of the country’s various insurgencies. This reflects the rebels or guerrillas usually remote areas of operations and the recognition by foreign companies that it is unwise to place their international employees or contractors in harm’s way.

Early morning bonding session, Manila, Philippines, by Benson Kua on Flickr

Early morning bonding session, Manila, Philippines, by Benson Kua on Flickr

What are the overlooked risks?

While criminal or terrorist threats invariably receive the most attention among business travellers and their employers, road traffic accidents, hotel fires and natural hazards such as typhoons and earthquakes are often ignored on the basis that they are non-country specific.

One often overlooked risk in the Philippines, however, are the country’s imaginative – and sometimes extremely dangerous – ‘scammers.’ Foreign visitors are frequently targeted in scams that range from verbal attempts to extract money, through false accusation of damage to property or sexual misconduct to the potentially lethal use of sedatives.

These can occur anywhere – from a street encounter, to the bar of a five-star hotel to corrupt Customs officers planting incriminating materials on arrival. Such scams are helped by the widespread use of English and the fact that many Philippine nationals have worked overseas, which has made them confident around foreigners.

How should people mitigate this?

Caution tempered with respect is a useful attitude to adopt in the Philippines. Visitors should remain wary of any overture from people they are not professionally connected with, while always politely deferring or deflecting any effort to commit them to a course of action that involves moving from a secure environment.

At the operational level to meet business obligations it is important for visitors to ensure they have dedicated transport, a trusted driver and an accompanying experienced local colleague. No advanced travel or business itinerary should be circulated below executive level and regular communications should be maintained with local colleagues, security advisers and the home office.

Only a minimal time should be spent at street level. Any travel outside of Manila’s immediate business district should be carefully considered and assessed for potential threats. Long distance travel should be by air rather than by road.

All manifestations of civil unrest should be avoided as violent clashes between protestors and the police can occur. Visitors inadvertently caught in in a protest or riot should immediately seek a means of escape.

Visitors should monitor local media for other risks, notably weather-related hazards such as typhoons, and be prepared to abide by official advice.

mbagwandeen

Mandira Bagwandeen, S-RM

Email: m.bagwandeen@s-rm.co.uk
Website: https://www.s-rm.co.uk/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/4314050

Mandira is a political and country risk analyst that covers the Asia Pacific, she focuses primarily on the identification and analysis of security and political developments in the region and in this regard has written for various publications.

How safe is it to visit the Philippines?

Levels of security risk vary across the Philippines and depend on the region that you are travelling to. Travel to the Philippines, especially the country’s tourist and business hubs, is generally considered safe as visitors are unlikely to face significant risks. However, travel to the southern Philippines, specifically central and western Mindanao, including the Zamboanga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago should be undertaken with extreme caution. Due to the high risk of terrorism, kidnapping, violent crime, and confrontations between armed groups, all non-essential travel to these regions should be avoided. If travel is unavoidable, necessary security measures must be implemented.

What are the biggest risks?

As most travel to the Philippines is considered safe, opportunistic crime is likely to be the largest risk visitors will face. Theft is common at markets, bus terminals, train stations, seaports and other crowded areas, for example. Most crimes that affect foreigners occur in major cities as these areas have the largest concentrations of expatriates and visitors. Nevertheless, caution is necessary in rural areas, where police capabilities and presence are limited. Travellers should also note that the Philippines has a high rate of violent crime, especially in major cities, primarily as a result of the presence of numerous gangs. However, foreigners are rarely victims of violent incidents. Crime rates are highest in Metro Manila, Central Visayas, and Cebu City. Other areas of note include the Southern Tagalog region, Central Luzon, and the Ilocos region.  Crime levels in Davao City, the country’s third-largest city, are of a moderate level, compared to wider Mindanao.

Although often not reported, extortion by security forces targeting foreigners poses a security risk. In one of the most notorious schemes, known as the ‘bullet-planting’ scam, airport security officials and workers reportedly plant ammunition in the luggage of passengers to extort various amounts of money to remove the illegal ammunition. To avoid being caught with ammunition in their luggage, travellers have reportedly paid between USD 30 and USD 1,800. From January to October 2015, more than 1,400 passengers were apprehended for having ammunition in their luggage, with most incidents recorded at Manila International Airport. Even though monitoring and surveillance measures have been boosted at airports, these scams are likely to continue.

Another potential risk to tourist safety is terrorism. While terrorist attacks previously occurred more frequently in the country’s business and tourist areas, in recent years, this risk has largely been restricted to the southern Philippines, specifically Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula. Militant Islamist groups in these regions, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), have a reputation for conducting high-impact attacks, kidnapping locals and foreign nationals for ransom, staging beheadings, and engaging in violent confrontations with military forces. The group made international headlines in 2015 when they kidnapped three Western nationals – two Canadians and a Norwegian- and a local woman from a holiday resort in Samal, Davao del Norte Province in Mindanao. Despite government attempts to thwart the activities of the group, the ASG has managed to maintain its operations.

What are the overlooked risks?

The government’s current crackdown on the illegal drug trade in the Philippines poses a potential risk to travellers’ safety. In fulfilling his election promise to tackle the country’s illicit drug problem, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte has been relentless in his mission to destroy the country’s narcotics industry. Since formally taking office on 30 June, more than 3,600 people have been killed by police and vigilante groups without any due process. Although locals have been targeted in this regard, the severity of the crackdown may impact foreigners. Due to increased surveillance and monitoring measures, foreigners engaging in recreational drug activity are likely to be apprehended by authorities, and in the worst case, become targets for vigilante groups.

tea-time-coron-philippines-by-_sofie-on-flickr

Tea Time, Coron, Philippines by _SoFie on Flickr

How should people mitigate this?

Pre-travel planning, including identifying the security risks specific to the region(s) that you will be travelling to, is required. This will allow you to assess where you are vulnerable and to implement the necessary measures to mitigate threats to your safety.

If you are travelling outside of Mindanao, the Zambonga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago, travellers are advised to implement practical security measures, which include:

Personal Safety

—     Do not display cash, mobile phones, cameras or any other valuables, especially when travelling to slum areas in cities;

—     Avoid carrying handbags with long straps as they are easy for thieves to snatch;

—     Use ATMs inside banks or hotels rather than those that have direct street access;

—     Visitors should be vigilant in and around bars and nightclubs where pickpocketing and muggings, as well as drug lacing of food and drinks occurs; and,

—     Given the severe crackdown on the illegal drug industry in the country, travellers should avoid engaging in any illicit drug activities and travelling to slum areas in major cities.

Travel Safety

—     Visitors are encouraged to avoid travelling to remote or dangerous areas;

—     Avoid walking alone at night, and travel in a group if possible;

—     Remain vigilant when taking public transport, as pickpockets and armed robbers are known to target buses and local taxis; and,

—     Ensure that your luggage is securely locked, preferably using code locks or protective wrapping, to ensure that it cannot be opened whilst out of sight.

In addition to the above measures, if you are travelling to central and western Mindanao, including the Zamboanga Peninsula and Sulu Archipelago, a higher, more detailed level of security is required. Visitors are advised to contact their risk management service provider in this regard to ensure safe entry and exit from these regions.

global-rescue

Global Rescue

Email: press@globalrescue.com
Website: https://www.globalrescue.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/GlobalRescue
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/global-rescue-llc

Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of integrated health, safety and travel risk management services. Since 2004, the firm has pioneered the delivery of medical, rescue and evacuation services to some of the earth’s most difficult places.

How safe is it to visit the Philippines?

Most trips to the Philippines occur without major security concerns or issues. All travel to the Philippines can proceed with the caveat that travel to destinations in west-southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago will require closer review and scrutiny of travel plans and risk mitigation measures.

What are the biggest risks?

Crime is a serious risk in the Philippines, regardless of location. This is especially true in Manila and other urban areas, where foreigners are most likely to be affected by petty crimes, including pick-pocketing, bag snatching, petty theft, and burglary. Pickpocketing and confidence crimes are prevalent in Manila.

Scams, confidence schemes, and credit card fraud also pose risks to travelers in the Philippines. A common scam includes tourists being approached by persons who claim to work for their hotel, are on a day off, and wish to show them the city. Victims may be robbed or taken advantage of. Travelers should be wary of strangers who offer to act as tour guides as they typically have some ulterior motive. There have been reports of con artists befriending solo tourists in Manila. In some cases, such criminals may drug and rob the tourist. In others, they may make false allegations against the tourist in an attempt to extort money.

Militant activity, terrorism, and associated organized crime present significant risks, particularly in large parts of western and southwestern Mindanao as well as the Sulu Archipelago. Violent attacks and a low-level insurgency affect parts of the country—particularly rural areas—though foreigners are not usually targeted. The southern Philippines is affected by a prolonged insurgency, and violent attacks, including bomb explosions, are not uncommon in the region, including in Mindanao. Active insurgent groups include the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Although the MILF has signed a peace agreement with the government, its militants have still been involved in violent clashes. Other terrorist groups operating in the country, particularly in central and western Mindanao and in the Sulu Archipelago, include the Communist New People’s Army (NPA), Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). In these areas, kidnapping is a serious threat faced by foreign travelers and expatriates. In addition, these groups frequently clash with government forces and may target infrastructure, including power facilities, telecommunications towers, bridges, bus stations, and airports. Notably, elements with links to the ASG are believed to have carried out the September 2016 bombing that killed over a dozen people at a night market in Davao City. The ASG, BIFF, and factions of other groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in recent years, although these relationships are likely more aspirational than concrete at present. Despite threats, attacks linked to the aforementioned groups remain rare in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in other parts of the northern Philippines.

What are the overlooked risks?

Natural disasters. There is a high risk of typhoons, seismic, and volcanic activity throughout the country, as well as heavy rains during the monsoon season. These events can cause devastating flooding, landslides, and widespread damage to infrastructure. Typhoon season typically occurs between June and November and storms have caused significant loss of life and extensive damage in recent years. The risk of typhoons in the Philippines is not necessarily concentrated in specific geographic locations, but can instead present itself nationwide. Opposite of the typhoon season, the annual monsoon season typically lasts from November through April, and can cause flooding and landslides. Manila is not immune to the aforementioned risks and poor urban planning can exacerbate the risks.

The country has several active volcanoes. Mount Mayon in the central Albay province, a popular tourist destination, and Taal Volcano in Luzon Island are the most active of these volcanoes. Mount Mayon’s last eruption was in May 2013, when four foreign climbers were killed.

In addition, Metro Manila is located astride a series of tectonic fault lines, leaving the city at risk for earthquakes. In recent years, several international experts have issued warnings reiterating that Manila is largely unprepared for an earthquake. In spite of the known risk posed by seismic activity, many buildings in Manila do not comply with international earthquake standards and could sustain extensive damage in a powerful earthquake. Emergency response services in Manila are not believed to be fully prepared for a large earthquake.

Outside of natural disasters, we are continuing to monitor the effects President Duterte’s policies will have on the social, political, and economic conditions in the country and any possible implications for the security of travelers.

How should people mitigate this?

First and foremost is to understand your destination prior to arriving. There is a wealth of knowledge on the internet from foreign embassies to hotel review sites which can give you an up-to-date, on-the-ground assessment of the current situation. Global Rescue Security Operations are available to members to answer any questions or concerns, and to supply current situation updates.

Upon arrival at the airport, consider arranging a vehicle from the hotel or host company for pickup and pack only as much luggage as you can easily carry or roll. International flights can arrive late at night, and it is easy to become disoriented when first arriving in a foreign country. If possible, find out the identity or description of the driver before arrival.

In case of a large-scale incident, major attack, or natural disaster, have a good communications plan in place. This should include alternate forms of communication aside from cellular phone, as cellular networks can become easily overwhelmed in times of emergency.

Additional safe traveler protocols include:

  • If caught in a potentially violent situation, immediately move away from the area and seek shelter in upscale hotels or large public buildings, such as libraries, theaters, hospitals, or museums.
  • If a protest or demonstration is encountered, avoid the area if possible and remove yourself from the situation quickly in case violence occurs.
  • Avoid displaying signs of wealth or affluence such as jewelry, smartphones, cameras, accessories, or large sums of money. Carry only necessary credit cards, keys, money, and one identity card. Leave the rest of the contents of your wallet in a secure place (hotel, apartment, etc.)
  • Review routes and areas of travel prior to each day. Carry a paper map and clearly specify safe and unsafe areas, police stations, hospitals, and predetermined assembly areas. Ensure you know your location at all times. Check the local news each morning in regards to recent security events and planned demonstrations that should be avoided.
  • Avoid traveling during hours of darkness and stay out of isolated unsafe areas away from tourist areas. These include “shortcuts’ and alleyways. Stick to main streets.
  • While traveling in vehicles, keep your head up and remain aware. Do not get fixated on a smartphone, tablet, etc. Travel with the windows up and doors locked to prevent carjackings or smash and grab style robberies.
  • Avoid talking about travel plans or accommodations in public areas or with strangers.
  • Maintain a color photocopy of your passport separately from the actual passport in case it is lost or stolen. Consider purchasing a passport card if available.

What duty of care provisions should employers sending staff to the Philippines have in place? What should employees ask for?

To support duty of care responsibilities, organizations must know where their travelers are and understand and disclose the potential travel risks they may encounter. When sending travelers to the Philippines, organizations must provide travelers with access to necessary information, resources, and reasonable care to ensure their health, safety, and security.

Employees should be briefed on their travel locations and should be informed of their organization’s travel risk management and emergency protocols, prior to travel. Additionally, employers should support their employees by working with a trusted travel risk management provider to ensure all lodging and in-country transportation resources have been properly vetted.

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