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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Hostile urban environments

56 per cent of the world's population live in cities. The greater majority of these cities may be characterised as hostile in one way or another. Cities can be very hostile places, in which high population densities exacerbates risks from crime, weather, conflict, natural disasters, accidents, war and violence. As people live in ever higher population concentrations - inevitable as the world's population expands continuously and exponentially, with no signs of letting up - cities are going to become increasingly dangerous places.

A number of authors, several with prior military or law enforcement experience, have written guides to urban survival. Our aim in this shorter essay is more modest: to list the types of risk that may make an urban environment hostile and to advise on how to mitigate that risk.

Crime - pickpocketing

In many cities with substantial impoverished populations, there is a risk of non-violent street theft. This may include bag snatching or pickpocketing, and it may involve the use of a blade to sever the strap of a bag surreptitiously. This author has had his rucksack cut open with a box knife by one man while another man distracted him as he was walking down the street, in one African capital particularly prone to this kind of encounter; the event took place in broad daylight. Skilled pickpockets can also lift a wallet out of the pockets of a pair of trousers without the victim noticing. They can also pick up any bag put down, even for an instant, or a mobile telephone or other valuable item placed on a table in an instant when the victim looks away. This sort of petty crime takes place in the vast majority of cities across the world. It is more common when alcohol is being consumed but it is by no means restricted to such situations.

Wear trousers with tight pockets and/or with buttons across the pockets. if you carry a bag, ensure that the material is reliable leather with strong zips and a thick strap. Wear a bag across the shoulder so that the bag may be felt and held in one's hand at all times. Do not carry valuables in a backpack on one's back. Wearing a backpack on one's front is clumsy. Bags around one's waist can be easily pickpocketed so while convenient for many purposes (e.g. trekking, or travel in public transport) they are not useful tools of personal security.

Avoid crowds. Crowds can be very confusing, with gangs of thieves rifling through your pockets and bags simultaneously. This can be a very dangerous and difficult situation if you are descended upon by a gang of muggers in this way. Seize hold of your bag containing valuable belongings and push your way out of the crowd with determination and then run.

The authorities

In some countries, but by no means all, the authorities themselves, in particular the Police, can be a source of aggravation and even danger. Unpleasant interactions with the authorities may include random drug tests or searches; the planting of drugs on a person for the purposes of extortion; extortion for imagined petty crimes such as jay walking or speeding; the demanding of bribes for performing routine Police functions such as reporting a lost passport; or practically any other interaction. In many countries, and not just those in the developing world, the right of a foreign national to consular access upon detention by the authorities may be denied or delayed without good reason.

In areas where civil conflict exists or is dormant, the Police and other security authorities may conduct arbitrary or random checks and questioning, including demanding access to your mobile telephone or even (as has happened to this author) detaining you and interrogating you over the contents of your Twitter account.

It is always advisable to know the attitude of the Police and other law enforcement authorities in a country or region before travelling there. As a general rule, avoid contact with the law enforcement authorities in countries where rule of law is low or absent. Be extremely cautious about reporting crimes to the Police in such an environment, even where the crimes committed are serious. The reporting of a crime may be seen as an opportunity to extort money or to level false charges against the victim. The perpetrator of a crime may have connections with the Police or other security forces, and the making of a report may have a backlash. This is precisely opposite to the advice that most embassies will give you about reporting crime in a foreign country. But before reporting a crime of which you have been a victim, always ask: what is the benefit for me of doing this, and what might the disadvantages be?

Where a victim reports a serious crime, they may not be allowed to leave the country while the Police or other authorities continue their investigation. This may be highly inconvenient to the victim, who may find themselves locked in an alien legal process they barely understand for an extended and indefinite period of time. Where a serious crime, such as violence or sexual assault, has occurred, the Police may or may not react sympathetically and they may not react as one would expect at home. Complaining victims can easily be the subject of vexatious counter-accusations. As a general rule, unless you need to report a crime for some fundamental reason (such as the loss of a passport, in order to obtain a new passport to travel out of the country in question), avoid reporting crimes to the Police in jurisdictions with low rule of law. This is the regrettable but gritty reality of the matter.

Violent crime

Most violent crime a foreigner will be exposed to in a foreign environment will be motivated by either robbery, sexual violence or drunkenness. Very occasionally, where the foreigner has become interlaced with illicit business arrangements, violence may be directed against a foreigner in the course of criminal business activities as a tool of deterrence or enforcement of the will of criminal gangs.

Unfortunately violent crime, where it occurs, is a fact of life and one can do little except stay aware of one's surrounding circumstances; be aware of one's own abilities and limitations in the practice of self-defence (something it is very hard to do without having been in a number of violent situations); and to avoid areas with a reputation for being dangerous. Seek local advice. Sometimes foreigners frequent violent places, particularly when intoxicated. Areas with large concentrations of bars, prostitution and drugs tend to have high incidences of violence but foreigners often go to such places in large quantities nonetheless and one needs to keep one's wits about you.

If faced with an incident of violence, the most important principle to adopt is not to escalate and to react in a non-violent way if at all possible. Running away is often effective. Apologising is effective, even if there is nothing to apologise about, particularly where the assailant is intoxicated. Looking scared is seldom a good idea, as it encourages a bully; save where the goal is to catch the assailant off his or her guard and then to snatch a weapon from the aggressor's hands or otherwise to disable a violent attacker. But as a general rule, the best approach to any violent encounter is to walk away if possible; to remain calm; not to carry valuables (so that one can give a robber the valuables one has without too much concern); and to know one's limitations. If faced with several assailants, it is very easy to be kicked quickly to the floor and then thoroughly beaten. It is better to negotiate with such a group, rather than to escalate matters with them which can cause much bloodshed. Keep calm and never imagine your own omnipotence in a violent encounter. In any violent confrontation, there is much uncertainty and it is rarely clear who will prevail if blows are exchanged. Unless you are extremely sure of your situation, do not use violence in response to a violent encounter. Find another way.

Most importantly, remain constantly aware in potentially violent environments so that you can remove yourself from the violent situation before it arises. The best form of self-defence is not to be there when the violent confrontation breaks out.

Drug crime

Taking drugs in foreign countries (or indeed at home) is fraught with dangers and it should always be avoided. The risks are multiple, and amplified for a foreigners. Drugs may not be pure. Their concentration or strength may not be known. Drug sellers may rip a person off, selling them something worthless or even harmful. They may be in cahoots with the Police, reporting the sale to the Police so that the Police may arrest the individual and extort money from them. Medical care and attention may not be available in the event of an overdose or poisoning.

Drug gangs can also be violent in the event that they are not paid or their business is interfered with; and they may have inappropriately intimate relationships with law enforcement authorities. Stay away from drug gangs as a casual or professional visitor to a foreign country. They are almost invariably the most significant danger that a traveller in a hostile urban environment can encounter.


Some cities may suffer from extreme weather conditions. Cities in the tropics may be extremely hot and humid. Routine exposure to temperatures over 37 degrees celsius will kill people as this is the temperature of the body. If the body's temperature is increased to over 37 degrees for a significant period, then the consequences are deadly. Any heatwave has a death rate.

Hot and humid conditions are also associated with a variety of tropical diseases, about which we have written, and a range of dangerous insects and animals. These diseases, insects and animals can easily invade cities, particularly those with poor infrastructure.

Air conditioning is useful to provide the body with an environment in which respite can be sought from high temperatures. Air conditioned environments are typically sealed and therefore insects and the various diseases they carry are typically excluded from an air conditioned environment.

Cold environments must be prepared for with adequate clothing and sleeping materials. Some of the coldest cities in the world are experienced in the Russian and Ukrainian winters. You need to take specialist advice, preferably from local people, before travelling to such places. Moscow, St Petersburg, Kyiv and Odessa can routinely fall to between -20 and -25 degrees celsius in winter and these temperatures will kill people quickly who are inadequately prepared for them. Even a short walk to the shops can be lethal, particularly if one slips on sheets of ice on the pavements. Driving can also become extremely dangerous in very low temperatures, as gasoline freezes, car parts cease to function, and tyres lose their grip on the road. Every journey out of a heated environment needs careful preparation in such circumstances.


We have written at length about tropical illnesses and the factors causing them. For many tropical diseases, the best treatment is found at the location where the tropical disease is contracted. Many tropical diseases and other maladies are confounding for western doctors who have no idea how to diagnose or treat them; a great deal of time can be spent, if one returns home with a tropical disease, trying to find a doctor who knows something about it. By contrast such knowledge may be commonplace in the location where the illness begins.

War and civil conflict

War and conflict of any kind yields all manner of risks. Provided one stays away from the front line, the risks of demise due to military action may be relatively low but not zero. In the course of modern warfare, targets may be hit by missiles or bombs from several hundreds of kilometres away and although the odds of being the victim of a long-range missile are fairly mild provided one stays away from military facilities, there are always risks associated with travelling in conflict zones that may include misdirected ordinance but may also include a number of other dangers. For example:

  1. Immigration formalities may become unusually restrictive, cumbersome or downright unpleasant. There may be extended delays. Baggage may be searched for weapons. You may be subject to interrogation, passing and re-passing over the frontiers of conflict jurisdictions.

  2. Travel in aircraft may be dangerous as aircraft are typically seen as potential threats in conflict zones and may be shot down by one or both sides to a conflict.

  3. Inter-city travel may be subject to a series of checkpoints and roadblocks that may involve interrogations, inspection of documents, inspection of vehicles and luggage, and demands for various kinds of more or less illegitimate payments.

  4. Avoid walking off the beaten track, due to risk of unexploded ordinance and/or unidentified minefields.

  5. Widespread poverty and hardship may be distressing and may expose a foreign visitor, perceived as wealthy, to the risks of robbery, harassment or overcharging.

  6. Essential staples, in particular food, medicines and clean water, may be in short supply. Shops may be short of goods.

  7. The risks of alcohol-fuelled violence may increase, including on the part of members of military or militia organisations.

  8. Public transport facilities may be disrupted.

  9. Some roads may be blocked for military reasons.

  10. Special permissions from the various warring parties may be required to travel to certain areas.

  11. Foreign visitors may be treated with suspicion. Legitimate reasons to visit war zones include journalism (where permitted) and humanitarian purposes, and visiting family to provide them with money, protection or means for their exit. If one does not have a cover story consistent with one of these purposes when visiting a war zone, one may encounter hostility.

  12. People may be very keen to present their side of the story in the context of a conflict zone: so much so, that such encounters may be uncomfortable and may require active management to prevent them getting out of hand.

Undoubtedly war zones are dangerous places in a variety of ways, and they should only be visited by those with compelling reasons to travel.

Accidental injury

The principal cause of accidental injury in hostile urban environments is traffic accidents. In many cities of the world, traffic accidents are ubiquitous as driving standards may be very low and licensing of drivers may be virtually non-existent. (Driving licences may not exist or it may be possible simply to buy one for a fee, with no training or testing being involved).

Unless a person has advanced skills in defensive driving, and a lot of experience of driving in dangerous environments, it is inadvisable to drive in some of the world's more hostile metropolises. Leave it to the locals, who have spent their lives doing it; try wherever possible to travel in secure vehicles; try to use drivers who know the city and the destination (often easier said than done); and have the coordinates of a reliable hospital to hand in case one is in a traffic accident.

Tripping over flagstones, pieces of metal sticking out of the pavement, and the like is also a danger in many cities in the developing world when walking, particularly at night. Carry a torch and take care.

Begging and harassment

It is particularly common in some poor cities that see a lot of foreign tourism, that foreigners are harassed and followed around by local people who make a living engaged in aggressive begging activities directed at foreigners. This can be extremely tiresome. Examples of cities that historically have had problems of this kind include Luxor, Delhi and Tangiers.

Try to stay calm notwithstanding the high temperatures; avoid confrontations (sometimes the aggressor is seeking to elicit a violent reaction); in some cases a helpful tourist police may be prepared to intervene; learn the art of tuning out this kind of noise, and remember that in many cases really quite small amounts of money will satisfy the person harassing you and it is easier just to pay a small sum to curtail the continuing harassment.

Getting lost

This is extremely easy in large developing world cities, particularly as the skill of navigating with paper maps has largely been lost in the age of Google Maps and mobile telephones. Unfortunately electronic mapping in the developing world is often far from adequate, not indicating major landmarks or showing the correct street names and often being quite out of date. The speed of development of some cities in the developing world is such that guidebooks are often likewise quickly out of date.

Try to acquire a paper map and carry an old-fashioned compass, and if walking around a city plot your trip on the map in advance of heading out of the door. Many developing world cities can be terribly confusing, with inadequate road signage and with many of the streets appearing strikingly similar. Plot major landmarks on your route and follow them with care. Do not rely upon mobile telephones, that can dissolve in pools of sweat as you walk around in hot weather, unable to look at the screen or manipulate the phone as everything becomes ever damper the more you sweat.


In hostile urban environments you may succumb to boredom. The city may have a limited number of attractions that, once visited, cease to entice. Travel around the city may be so exhausting and difficult that it is unattractive. You may spend more time than you are used to at home or in your hotel. Try to stay or live somewhere with all the amenities you are likely to want within easy walking distance. This might include restaurants, bars, clothes shops, pharmacies, food stores and other convenience stores.

You will be less bored if you are in a neighbourhood frequented by other foreigners (be they tourists, expatriates or businesspeople) who share your hospitality preferences and other needs, than if you are isolated in a suburb without a significant international presence and hence without local businesses existing that are used to supplying foreigners.

Immigration rules

Immigration rules are a hazard for all foreign travellers, and they have a habit of becoming ever more restrictive and complex as international travel becomes ever easier. Different countries tend to fall into different categories.

There are those countries that actively encourage immigration on the part of foreigners, for example Thailand, who make applications for residence and extension of one's stay easy and straightforward. At worst there may be some bureaucracy based in a government office. At best everything can be done online.

Then there are those countries that in theory have all manner of complex immigration procedures but in practice those procedures are impossible to comply with because the authorities do not easily grant residence permits or extensions of stay; but in many cases these rules do not matter because nobody takes any notice of them anyway. A good example is Serbia. It is extremely difficult to obtain a residence permit in Serbia as a foreigner, absent some sort of official or unofficial support; but it is barely necessary, as the country does not enforce its immigration legislation anyway. Contrast Thailand, which enforces its immigration rules very strictly but it is in fact straightforward to obtain the necessary permissions.

Finally there are those countries, such as Russia, that make immigration a complete nightmare. The FSB, Russia's internal security service, sets and enforces the immigration rules ruthlessly. It is extremely hard to obtain extensions to visas. Immigration applications require huge amounts of paperwork and all manner of illegitimate payments. The Russian authorities develop regulations designed to harass foreigners they consider unwelcome in the country, such as mandatory HIV tests in military hospitals in obscure locations. Avoid extended stays in such jurisdictions.


Some jurisdictions may subject a foreign visitor to all manner of intrusive surveillance, for all sorts of more or less unusual reasons. They may consider foreigners all to be potential spies; they may wish to protect foreign visitors and they consider surveillance to be the best way of achieving that.

Surveillance tends to fall within two categories: personal surveillance (that is to say, being followed around and/or sent people to talk to you on a pretext of obtaining information about you or inducing you to engage in compromising behaviour); and electronic surveillance (reading your emails, instant messages, listening to your digital and even analogue telephone calls). You may also be subject to mass audio surveillance in some jurisdictions, a phenomenon we have described in an earlier article.

These phenomena are dangers associated more with a country's internal security services than with the Police. In some jurisdictions the internal security services may have access to advanced technology and methods but they may be unscrupulous and unprincipled in the techniques they are using. You may never meet members of the internal security service, or at least they may never identify themselves to you; but they may use ordinary civilians to intimidate you, threaten you or make your life complicated or confusing. They may also use methods of electronic communications interference to make your life a misery, sending emails in your name, bombarding your inbox or mobile telephone with pernicious nonsense, and a variety of other unpleasant activities.

There is a strong case for staying away from mobile telephone communications altogether in such jurisdictions, if you perceive yourself as a potential or actual target of malicious attention by a country's internal security services.

Natural disasters

Some countries are plagued by earthquakes, typhoons, flooding and other natural disasters. Each region has different risks. Follow your government's travel advice and research all such risks before you travel. The only effective mitigation of such risks is to avoid areas with a high chance of natural disasters, or at least to avoid them at the times of year when natural disasters are most likely to take place. Know what to do in the event of a natural disaster, and be aware that the hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, particularly in a developing world context; therefore plan one's own self-help remedies, including a plan for exit from the affected territory when public transport and road arteries are likely to be jam-packed with people trying to achieve the same thing.

Consider using minor roads and lesser known ports or airports to leave an area affected by a natural disaster, as principal ports, roads and airports may become subject to considerable delays. Exiting a zone where a natural disaster has occurred is a substantial undertaking and requires very considerable planning. Although such disasters are always rare, it may be worth undertaking this planning, particularly where one's stay in a potential zone with a propensity for natural disasters is likely to be extended.

Anxiety and mental health

Often overlooked, extended stays in hostile environments may be associated with anxiety and deterioration in mental health. This is all the more the case where the experience is isolating (there are few other foreigners to interact with), and where one does not know how long one is going to stay in the challenging environment.

Be familiar with pharmaceutical medication appropriate to managing anxiety (anxiolytics), and do not hesitate to seek specialist psychiatric advice if it is available. (In many developing world environments, it is not straightforward to obtain expert psychiatric advice so it may be useful to be one's own expert.) We anticipate that managing anxiety will be the subject of a later essay in this series.


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