/Australias travel warnings unfair to developing nations, experts say

Australias travel warnings unfair to developing nations, experts say

By Nibir Khan

Posted

April 13, 2019 08:02:38

Diplomatic and academic experts say Australia’s travel warnings can be biased against developing nations, with advice on safety threats “depending on the country involved, not necessarily the risk involved”.

Key points:

  • Experts compared travel warnings issued by DFAT after terrorist attacks in various countries
  • One expert says warnings for countries like Indonesia are always stronger than those for countries like the UK
  • A former High Commissioner for Canberra says DFAT needs to provide more clarity about how it determines warnings

Travellers heading overseas use the Smartraveller website to search for official safety advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) about any risk at the destination they are travelling to, whether it be security, health, local laws or natural disasters.

The warnings range from exercising normal safety precautions to urging a high degree of caution, such as reconsidering the need to travel or not travelling at all.

Dr Shahar Hameiri, an expert in Australian foreign policy from the University of Queensland, compared safety ratings issued by Smartraveller following terrorist attacks.

“I think it is true that the level of travel warning that DFAT provides can vary depending on the country involved, not necessarily the risk involved,” Dr Hameiri said.

“If you go back to the United Kingdom or the United States after major terrorist attacks, the level of travel warning was not raised to a similar level as it was raised for instance in countries like Indonesia following a terrorist attack.”

Dr Hameiri said a parliamentary inquiry into the 2002 Bali bombing questioned the quality of Australian travel advice at that time, and since then DFAT had been “risk averse” on Indonesia.

“But in terms of how the information is exactly evaluated, that process is not entirely transparent, so it’s hard to assess … that’s not published on the website, so it’s very difficult to know on what basis they’ve made those assessments,” he said.

Dr Pradip Thomas, an expert in political economy of communications from the University of Queensland, said the ratings depended more on historical and trade relationships, than on current, on-ground intelligence.

“London is the knifing capital of the world. Is there a travel advisory against that? No. You just need to have one incident in a developing country,” Mr Thomas said.

“I think the issue really has to do with relationships. Historical relationships. Trade relationships … everything is based around those kinds of relationships.”

Warnings used as ‘political weapons’

Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Canberra, Humayun Kabir, said there was lack of understanding from DFAT when it came to issuing its warnings.

“That comes out of either their fear or over consciousness about certain countries, certain issues, or lack of understanding about the ground reality,” Mr Kabir said.

“We see that certain governments use travel advisories as a political tool or weapon against certain countries. That is not an uncommon situation.”

He said blanket tags could severely harm a developing economy.

“They could be quite difficult and harmful. For several reasons. They may scare away tourists; may also drive away the potential investors and also affect reputation of a nation to the international community,” he said.

DFAT denied its travel warnings were influenced by “political or commercial considerations”.

In a statement, it said: “DFAT provides the Smartraveller website to assist Australian travellers to make their own safe travel decisions.

“Our travel advisories are not influenced by political or commercial considerations. They provide an objective assessment of the risks likely to confront Australian travellers.”

The ABC understands DFAT uses sources including Australian diplomatic mission reports, ASIO assessments, and advisories prepared by consular partners — the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

University of Queensland student Georgia Schefe spent a week studying in Jaipur, India on a course organised and funded by DFAT.

She was surprised the same department sending her on the course had given the country a poor safety rating.

“When I was first looking at the Smartraveller website, it made me quite concerned and a bit fearful for my safety on the trip,” Ms Schefe said.

“I remember seeing a lot of yellow on India’s page, which told me I should ‘exercise a high degree of caution’.

“I found that to be a bit concerning and confusing at the time but in reality, it wasn’t unsafe at all.”

US warns of terrorism risk in Bangladesh

This week, the US State Department issued a heightened travel warning about Bangladesh, urging travellers to “exercise increased caution”.

“Reconsider travel to Dhaka due to crime and terrorism … Southeast Bangladesh, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts, due to crime, terrorism and kidnapping,” the warning stated.

The warning prompted an angry response from Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“They have not informed us as to why this was done and have not provided any explanation either,” she said.

“If they have any intelligence about threats in the future, it is their responsibility to let us know. They should let our agencies know so the agencies can take the necessary action.

“Bangladesh has successfully tackled terrorism. We are very alert and our intelligence agency is working day and night. If they have any information, they should let the authorities know.”

Bangladesh warns on NZ, Australia

Last month, responding to the terrorist attack in Christchurch, Bangladesh issued safety warnings of its own to its citizens in New Zealand and Australia.

The Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry said those living in and travelling to Australia were “advised to be vigilant at all times, particularly in public places”.

But in a statement, the Bangladesh High Commission in Canberra denied the travel warning was reacting to Australia’s long-standing negative stance against Bangladesh.

“The issuance of travel advisories by the Bangladesh Government recently does not have any direct links with Australia’s travel advisory for Bangladesh,” the statement said.

“Every state has responsibility towards its citizens’ security while they travel abroad.”

Mr Kabir agreed the decision was not reactionary.

“I don’t think so because, this is an unsettling time … and every government will try to save its back,” he said.

DFAT should make processes clearer: expert

Dr Hameiri said while Smartraveller had its shortcomings, he believed they were doing the best job they could.

“I think that DFAT has become better, as I’ve noticed anyway, in pinpointing particular regions of countries or particular kinds of activities that could get people into trouble,” he said.

But he said there was still room for improvement and there should be more clarity in the processes used.

“I think it could be useful if we could have a better sense of how the warnings are determined,” he said.

Dr Shahab Enam Khan from the department of international relations at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh suggested reforms to the way travel advisories from developed nations operated.

“There has to be a provision for such as ‘country confidence’ or ‘country stability’ — because you essentially also have some sort of confidence measures because these sort of advisories do not necessarily reflect the real political stability or real criminal scenario within a country,” he said.

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