June 13, 2024

Wrong side of the law

From a casual remark to an illegal medication, a traveller’s safety is wrapped up in their personal circumstances, says Frank Harrison at World Travel Protection

There can be a misguided belief that rights and social and cultural norms accepted in someone’s home country are transferable under one’s passport when travelling. We hear this a lot both from travellers and organisations, who seem to think that a quick visit to their home country’s Embassy or High Commission and all will be fine.

However, what may be considered normal at home can be unacceptable, pose unique challenges and potentially be incredibly dangerous for travellers, including imprisonment, corporal or even capital punishment.

To ensure the safety of all travelling populations, organisations need to provide information on a destination that considers geopolitical factors and how a person’s situation may affect their safety in that destination. For instance, an employee’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or medication may be something their employer is unaware of, but could be of great relevance depending on their destination.

“What may be considered normal at home can be unacceptable, pose unique challenges and potentially be incredibly dangerous”

How an organisation communicates potentially sensitive information can be tricky, but these conversations need to take place. Companies should look to create a psychologically safe space where they can educate their teams on a destination and staff feel able to be open and ask questions pertaining to the safety of a destination. This does not mean that an individual is forced to divulge personal information, but rather a system should be in place to distribute information to all travelling populations covering areas including sexuality, medication and advice on how cultural attitudes and societal norms may differ from a home country.

It is important to be aware that coming from an open, democratic and tolerant society can make travellers over-confident and not vigilant enough in making allowances for a different culture.

For instance, while there are great strides in many countries to break down barriers for marginalised people, especially LGBTQ+ , there are still many parts of the world where it is not acceptable to show any outward signs of affection, but especially to a same-sex person, e.g. holding hands or kissing. It may be necessary to hide your sexuality in public and colleagues too need to be aware not to expose their colleagues’ sexuality while in conversation in social situations.

At the present time, 71 countries criminalise private, consensual, or same-sex sexual activity, and almost half are Commonwealth countries including Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore and Zambia. The death penalty is a possibility in 11 jurisdictions including Iran, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Fifteen jurisdictions also criminalise the gender identity and expression of transgender people, using so-called ‘cross-dressing’, ‘impersonation’ and ‘disguise’ laws. In many more countries, a range of laws that criminalise same-sex activity and vagrancy, hooliganism and public order offences specifically target transgender people.

“No one is above the laws of a state, and a traveller must err on the side of caution to ensure they are not putting themselves at risk

It is an organisation’s duty of care to educate staff that while not condoning these laws and rules, they may need to change their behaviour for their own safety and security.

Regarding medication, while travellers can usually transport most standard prescriptions across a border with a doctor’s prescription, there are some jurisdictions where certain medications like opiate containing analgesics or cannabis-based medicinal products are illegal. Only some countries have legalised the use of cannabis-based medicinal products. People often believe that a doctor’s prescription for these substances is their endorsement to carry it on their person or in their personal effects when travelling, but this is not the case. 

Using the UAE as an example, it is unlawful to have THC (cannabis) present in your system and even an over-the-counter codeine (opiate)-based product, easily bought in many countries, is illegal and has the same weight for possession as having THC present in your system. Another example is Ritalin (methylphenidate), often used for conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which cannot be taken into many countries including the UAE and Japan.

It is crucial for companies to have access to accurate information, which is updated regularly to follow legislative changes, to allow full and detailed pre-trip briefings for all travelling staff. No one is above the laws of a state, and a traveller must err on the side of caution to ensure they are not putting themselves at risk.

Frank Harrison is Regional Security Director for UK and North America for World Travel Protection