Expats face up to terror fears
Terrorist bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca have increased terrorism awareness — but are expatriates in Europe afraid?
The reports from Saudi Arabia and Morocco were grisly. After the bombing of three expatriate residence compounds in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, one person claimed to have found body parts in his swimming pool. Television coverage from the North African city Casablanca showed the bloodstained terrace of Casa de Espana, a popular expatriate haunt, where at least 20 people died. The words terrorism, expatriates and Western targets have dominated international media coverage since the two deadly bombings in May. Under the circumstances, you might expect expatriates in some Western European countries to be edgy — but they’re not. According to two recent Expatica surveys, a majority of expatriates in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, say they feel safe in their foreign homes. Of 300 expatriates surveyed, 67 percent said that they were concerned about world events, but this apprehension did not translate into fear for personal safety. Only 20 percent said that they were worried about their physical security. Though expats cite various reasons for feeling protected, many believe they are a safe distance from more likely targets in the Middle East and in countries that staunchly supported the war in Iraq (even if they themselves are from countries such as the US, UK and Australia). Others prefer not to speculate on the likelihood of a terror attack, lest they fall victim to fear and paranoia. The terrorist next door "I don't feel any big personal sense of fear in Germany," said American Chuck Emerson, 54, a self-employed publisher who has resided in Germany for 28 years. Having lived in Europe for almost three decades, Emerson says terror attacks are a fact of life. During his time in Germany he has been exposed to periodic episodes of terrorism by various groups, from the communist Baader-Meinhof Gang (aka Red Army Faction or RAF) to Kurdish liberation factions. "I have faith in the German authorities to be able to keep the situation under control. After all, the Germans have already captured, tried and sentenced many of those involved in al-Qaeda in this country." European cross-border intelligence and policing efforts have been considerably bolstered since the 11 September attacks and have led to the uncovering of a large and well-established network of terror cells operating across the continent. But despite military and law-enforcement successes against Islamic extremist groups in Germany and other European nations, the idea of living amongst possible terrorists has made some expatriates uneasy. "Knowing that the September 11 terrorists lived in Hamburg -- where I live -- is always on the back of my mind," said American Miguel A Buitrago, 34. "I think the German authorities are doing something about it, but as we can see, that is no guarantee." In the Netherlands and in Belgium, recent news reports have suggested that local Islamic groups may be linked to the deadly attacks in Casablanca. And in Rotterdam, a court verdict is expected on June 5 in the trial of 12 suspected Muslim terrorists. Yet Ben Chittick, a 28-year-old American who has lived in Amsterdam for two years, does not believe these local extremists pose an immediate threat. "I don’t doubt that terrorists reside here or are passing through the country, but I don’t feel that this is directly threatening to where I live and work," he said. "If a terrorist wanted to target somewhere then I'm sure there are more suitable targets than here…Surely, the Netherlands is not the most egregious violator of their warped sense of what's the right way to live and behave." Who is responsible for expat security? Politicians and counterterrorism experts continually debate the threat of international terrorism in Europe. Some have admitted that the risk of attack from al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamic groups is more serious than they had previously thought, but without specific intelligence information it is virtually impossible to assess Europe’s vulnerability. Expatriates who want to find out about security warnings most often turn to news reports or their embassies for information. Since terrorist groups have been known to attack various "Western targets", such as unprotected restaurants and nightclubs, many governments advise its citizens abroad to register their presence at the nearest consulate. "Since Bali, I think a lot more people are registering on the DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] web page," said Anne MacGregor, co-founder of the Southern Cross Group, an international non-profit lobbying organisation for Australian expatriates, whose main office is in Brussels. "We, as an organisation, have been telling people to register because one of the problems with Bali was that they did not know who was in the nightclub... You should always leave details about where you are." In the case of a possible security threat however, embassies and consulates can do little more than send out risk advisories and protect their own staff. Expatriates are most often left to fend for themselves by relying on local authorities or their employers. "The individual and the company are primary responsibility for expat security," said Nicola Hudson, head of group communications, for Control Risks Group, a London-based risk assessment and security consulting firm. "A balance has to be struck and individual expatriates have to accept some responsibility." Following September 11, many multinationals have been reviewing and training employees on contingency plans, which can include evacuation, she said. It is generally considered good practice for companies to keep track of global crisis information and communicate emergency repatriation plans to their foreign workers. Individual expatriates are also expected to keep their contact details up to date, discuss contingency plans with their families and organise much of their own personal and financial matters. Living without fear Security plans may become increasingly important, but most multinational companies are not allowing terrorism or other fears to impact their international assignment levels. In the annual Global Relocation Trends Survey, conducted by GMAC Global Relocation Services, 69 percent of human resources and relocation executives said their expat numbers had either stayed the same or increased in 2002. And more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they anticipated their expatriate population would stay the same (41 percent) or increase (37 percent) in 2003. Individual expatriates have also said that are not packing their bags or letting paranoia hinder their day-to-day existence. "Sadly terrorism has infiltrated our lives, but I'm of the mindset that you cannot let it stop you from living your daily life," noted American Meghan Waters Ballantyne, a 27-year-old Paris resident. Ballantyne receives global terrorism warnings from the US embassy where she is registered, but she continues to be active within the American community and volunteers at the American Church, which has heightened its own security. Australian Narida Arnott, a 27-year-old Belgium resident, says that despite her government’s backing of the US-led war on terrorism, she does not feel particularly vulnerable to harassment or threats. She continues to attend international social gatherings and goes on with life as usual — but that does not mean she feels 100-percent secure. "I do not feel safe from terrorism in Belgium, as the European Parliament and NATO are based here in Brussels and they seem like important targets for anti-Western terrorists," Arnott said. "However I do not believe in letting these concerns run my life… As we’ve seen, these attacks can happen just about anywhere in the world so who's to say where you would truly be safe." June 2003 Kristine Garcia is a former editor of Expatica Netherlands. Subject: Life in Holland