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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 19:47 GMT 20:47 UK
Helping expats evade kidnappers
By Paula Dear
BBC News

Armed militiamen patrol Delta creeks
Kidnappers usually seek the easiest target, says trainer Mike Heron

The seizure of a three-year-old British girl in Nigeria this week has again brought the issue of the kidnapping of expatriates abroad to the fore. How can people protect themselves and their employees from the increasing risks?

The vast majority of kidnaps are carried out purely for cash, says UK-based security consultant Will Geddes.

"It's all about the money," adds Mr Geddes, whose company provides security training and kidnap and ransom negotiators.

Even where there are political motives for the kidnap, money will often change hands at the end of the day, he says.

The biggest factor in avoiding kidnap is lowering your profile, because you don't want to stand out
Mike Heron, security trainer

As a result of the rising threat firms are spending increasing amounts of money on insuring against kidnap and ransom and on training and briefing staff when deploying them to risky countries, he says.

Although it is true to say that in many areas, such as Mexico, middle-class locals are more at risk than foreigners many firms still don't take the risks to expats seriously enough, he claims.

According to Mr Geddes, kidnaps have increased by about 70% in the last eight years. About 40% of those are company employees, some 28% are "wealthy people" and the rest are usually involved in family feuds, drugs or criminality, he says.

But obtaining reliable figures on the number and type of kidnappings across the world is near impossible because the vast majority - up to 90% Mr Geddes estimates - go unreported.

1: Iraq
2: Nigeria
3: Haiti
4: Colombia/Mexico
5: Ecuador
6: Venezuela
7: Philippines
Source: ASI Global

One US security firm, Clayton Consultants, publishes a monthly kidnap monitor drawn from media reports.

June 2007's file runs to 26 pages, detailing kidnapping incidents and updates from all over the world.

They include Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Australia, China, India, Russia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Italy, Turkey, Iraq, the US, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and Peru. And the list goes on.

But in kidnapping, as in most things, prevention is better than cure.

Any advisor will say that appearing conspicuously wealthy in a poor area or developing nation - bearing in mind that wealth is always relative - is simply a no-no.

'Avoid patterns'

Ex-Royal Marine Mike Heron trains workers, including journalists, to stay safe in environments considered to be "hostile".

"The biggest factor in avoiding kidnap is lowering your profile, because you don't want to stand out. You will be seen as wealthy and to most people you probably are.

"So don't go round in big shiny vehicles - muddy them up, and get local plates if you can."

Much of his advice revolves around moving from A to B, the time when you are more likely to be snatched.

It includes trying to time your approach to traffic lights so you don't have to halt, not stopping at accidents unless you are in an area with lots of people, and keeping enough space between vehicles so you are never "sandwiched" between two cars and cannot escape.

"If you can see the wheels of the car in front of you then you have enough space to manoevre round them," he adds.

Mike Hill, Oluchi Hill
Mike and Oluchi Hill's daughter was kidnapped in Nigeria

It is also vital not to allow patterns to creep into your daily life when living in risky areas, says Mr Heron.

"We don't realise how many patterns we get into - you get up, have your cereal, have a shower, leave the house at the same time, and before you know it your life is 90% the same."

Avoiding leaving home or the office at the same time each day and taking the same routes are some of the common-sense pointers he gives his trainees.

Taxis are also often quoted as a potential risk. The advice is to check the legitimacy of the company, avoid travelling from airports in the middle of the night and don't get into a car with more than one person.

This might even involve being "un-British" by making a fuss and getting out of the car if the driver stops to let someone in, says Mr Heron.

If the worst happens the most dangerous moment will be the "hit" or the "ambush", he says, when the kidnappers are filled with stress and fear.

At that moment the only option is to "just go along with it" and not try to run or fight, he says.

'Easiest target'

The scale of the challenge being faced by multi-national corporations, NGOs and public sector organisations who are deploying personnel to high-risk destinations is huge in terms of cost and logistics.

Individual companies are often reluctant to share specific details of their own security policies and staff training.

And the truth is most firms will not want to the world to know when have suffered a kidnap, much less whether they have paid a ransom, says Mr Geddes.

"In the majority of corporate cases [of kidnap] money changes hands but the public doesn't get to know about it."

To avoid becoming a statistic just being well aware of the risks - no matter how experienced a traveller one is - is the best tool to possess against kidnapping, adds Mr Heron.

"If someone really wants to get you they probably will. But often they won't necessarily want you, they are just going for the easiest target.

"Just remember there are people out there who are ready to get you," he adds, before conceding that he does have a pessimistic streak.

"Even as you are putting together this article, someone is sitting in Nigeria and saying 'right, we need to abduct someone today'."

Priest kidnapped in Philippines
10 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Working in a danger zone
20 Jan 06 |  Africa

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